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Test, measurement tools used in quantum computing research

Posted: 20 Jun 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Massachusetts Institute of Technology  quantum computing  test  measurement  qubit 

The US National Security Agency has allotted $80 million in a research program with the aim of developing a quantum computer that can break traditional encryption schemes. While quantum computing is very much in its infancy, that may be changing in the next few years as governments and private groups around the world embark on research efforts to take advantage of recent advances in micro and nano scale fabrication.

The interest in quantum computing is clear. For starters, factoring problems that would require time spans longer than the entire history of the universe to complete using conventional computing could be solved in minutes by a fully functional quantum computer. Furthermore, quantum computers could do much more than crack encryption codes. For instance, they could be used to study, in remarkable detail, the interactions between atoms and molecules that more accurately resemble real-world behaviour. This, in turn, could enable researchers to design new drugs and materials such as superconductors that work at room temperature.

Today's computers perform calculations serially using bits that can be either 1 or 0. In contrast, quantum computers can make many simultaneous calculations by using quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist as both 1 and 0 at the same time. With qubits, quantum computers can operate in a truly parallel fashion, so much so that essentially all computational pathways are pursued at once, which exponentially eclipses serial processing bottlenecks. One machine cycle, one "tick of the quantum computer clock," computes not just on one machine state, but all possible instruction states at once.

Classical bit vs. qubit

But it hasn't been easy to build such systems. Qubits are notoriously tricky to manipulate, since any disturbance causes them to fall out of their quantum state (or "decohere"). Decoherence is the Achilles heel of quantum computing. A key challenge is finding ways to stave off decoherence so a quantum computer can perform with enough accuracy to allow for error correction.

Using approaches such as superconductor circuits, quantum dots, nanowire, graphene, diamond and many others, researchers are able to implement limited capacity quantum computers. To perform experiments on these systems, researchers require the ability to define and repeatedly send very low-noise, low-jitter signals into the quantum computer and then evaluate the results.

This need has led researchers to one of the staples of electrical and RF design: the arbitrary waveform generator (AWG). The AWG is ideal because it can pre-compensate for analogue effects in a measurement system such as low-frequency droop when using a bias T-cable loss. There is an excellent example of the pre-compensation approach in this paper from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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