What is a qubit?

I was trolling around in the comments of a news article presented on Yahoo the other day. What I saw there has sort of stuck with me and I’ve decided I should write about it. The article in question, which may have been by an outfit other than Yahoo itself, was about the recent decision by IBM to direct a division of people toward the task of learning how to program a quantum computer.

Using the word ‘quantum’ in the title of a news article is a sure fire way to incite click-bait. People flock in awe to quantum-ness even if they don’t understand what the hell they’re reading. This article was a prime example. All the article really talked about was that IBM has decided that quantum computers are now a promising enough technology that they’re going to start devoting themselves to the task of figuring out how to compute with them. Note, the article spent a lot of time kind of masturbating over how marvelous quantum computers will be, but it really actually didn’t say anything new. Another tech company deciding to pretend to be in quantum computing by figuring out how to program an imaginary computer is not an advance in our technology… digital quantum computers are generally agreed to be at least a few years off yet and they’ve been a few years off for a while now. There’s no guarantee that the technology will suddenly emerge into the mainstream –and I’m neglecting the DSpace quantum computer because it is generally agreed among experts that DSpace hasn’t even managed to prove that their qubits remain coherent through a calculation to actually be a useful quantum computer, let alone that they achieved anything at all by scaling it up.

The title of this article was a prime example of media quantum click-bait. The title boldly declared that “IBM is planning to build a quantum computer millions of times faster than a normal computer.” Now, that title was based on an extrapolation in the midst of the article where a quantum computer containing a mere 1000 qubits suddenly becomes the fastest computing machine imaginable. We’re very used to computers that contain gigabytes of RAM now, which is actually several billion on-off switches on the chip, so a mere 1,000 qubits seems like a really tiny number. This should be underwritten with the general concerns of the physics community that an array of 100 entangled qubits may exceed what’s physically possible… and it neglects that the difficulty of dealing with entangled systems increases exponentially with the number of qubits to be entangled. Scaling up normal bits doesn’t bump into the same difficulty. I don’t know if it’s physically possible or not, but I am aware that IBM’s declaration isn’t a major break-through so much as splashing around a bit of tech gism to keep the stockholders happy. All the article really said was that IBM has happily decided to hop on the quantum train because that seems to be the thing to do right now.

I really should understand that trolling around in the comments on such articles is a lost cause. There are so many misconceptions about quantum mechanics running around in popular culture that there’s almost no hope of finding the truth in such threads.

All this background gets us to what I was hoping to talk about. One big misconception that seemed to be somewhat common among commenters on this article is that two identical things in two places actually constitute only one thing magically in two places. This may stem from a conflation of what a wave function is versus what a qubit is and it may also be a big misunderstanding of the information that can be encoded in a qubit.

In a normal computer we all know that pretty much every calculation is built around representing numbers using binary. As everybody knows, a digital computer switch has two positions: we say that one position is 0 and the other is 1. An array of two digital on-off switches then can produce four distinct states: in binary, to represent the on-off settings of these states, we have 00, 01, 10 and 11. You could easily map those four settings to mean 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Suppose we switch now to talk about a quantum computer where the array is not bits anymore, but qubits. A very common qubit to talk about is the spin of an atom or an electron. This atom can be in two spin states: spin-up and spin-down. We could easily map the state spin-up to be 1, and call it ‘on,’ while spin-down is 0, or ‘off.’ For two qubits, we then get the states 00, 01, 10 and 11 that we had before, where we know about what states the bits are in, but we also can turn around and invoke entanglement. Entanglement is a situation where we create a wave function that contains multiple distinct particles at the same time such that the states those particles are in are interdependent on one another based upon what we can’t know about the system as a whole. Note, these two particles are separate objects, but they are both present in the wave function as separate objects. For two spin-up/spin-down type particles, this can give access to the so-called singlet and triplet states in addition to the normal binary states that the usual digital register can explore.

The quantum mechanics works like this. For the system of spin-up and spin-down, the usual way to look at this is in increments of spinning angular momentum: spin-up is a 1/2 unit of angular momentum pointed up while spin-down is -1/2 unit of angular moment, but pointed the opposite direction because of the negative sign. For the entangled system of two such particles, you can get three different values of entangled angular momentum: 1, 0 and -1. Spin 1 has both spins pointing up, but not ‘observed,’ meaning that it is completely degenerate with the 11 state of the digital register since it can’t fall into anything but 11 when the wave function collapses. Spin -1 is the same way: both spins are down, meaning that they have 100% probability of dropping into 00. The spin 0 state, on the other hand, is kind of screwy, and this is where the extra information encoding space of quantum computing emerges. The 0 states could be the symmetric combination of spin-up with spin-down or the anti-symmetric combination of the same thing. Now, these are distinct states, meaning that the size of your register just expanded from (00, 01, 10 and 11) to (00, 01, 10, 11 plus anti-symmetric 10-01 and symmetric 10+01). So, the two qubit register can encode 6 possible values instead of just 4. I’m still trying to decide if the spin 1 and -1 states could be considered different from 11 and 00, but I don’t think they can since they lack the indeterminacy present in the different spin 0 states. I’m also somewhat uncertain whether you have two extra states to give a capacity in the register of 6 or just 5 since I’m not certain what the field has to say about the practicality of determining the phase constant between the two mixed spin-up/spin-down eigenstates, since this is the only way to determine the difference between the symmetric and anti-symmetric combinations of spin.

As I was writing here, I realized also that I made a mistake myself in the interpretation of the qubit as I was writing my comment last night. At the very unentangled minimum, an array of two qubits contains the same number of states as an array of two normal bits. If I consider only the states possible by entangled qubits, without considering the phasing constant between 10+01 and 10-01, this gives only three states, or at most four states with the phase constant. I wrote my comment without including the four purely unentangled cases, giving fewer total states accessible to the device, or at most the same number.

Now, the thing that makes this incredibly special is that the number of extra states available to a register of qubits grows exponentially with the number of qubits present in the register. This means that a register of 10 qubits can encode many more numbers than a register of ten bits! Further, this means that fewer bits can be used to make much bigger calculations, which ultimately translates to a much faster computer if the speed of turning over the register is comparable to that of a more conventional computer –which is actually somewhat doubtful since a quantum computer would need to repeat calculations potentially many times in order to build up quantum statistics.

One of the big things that is limiting the size of quantum computers at this point is maintaining coherence. Maintaining coherence is very difficult and proving that the computer maintains all the entanglements that you create 100% of the time is exceptionally non-trivial. This comes back to the old cat-in-the-box difficulty of truly isolating the quantum system from the rest of the universe. And, it becomes more non-trivial the more qubits you include. I saw a seminar recently where the presenting professor was expressing optimism about creating a register of 100 Josephson junction type qubits, but was forced to admit that he didn’t know for sure whether it would work because of the difficulties that emerge in trying to maintain coherence across a register of that size.

I personally think it likely that we’ll have real digital quantum computers in the relatively near future, but I think the jury is still out as to exactly how powerful they’ll be when compared to conventional computers. There are simply too many variables yet which could influence the power and speed of a quantum computer in meaningful ways.

Coming back to my outrage at reading comments in that thread, I’m still at ‘dear god.’ Quantum computers do not work by teleportation: they do not have any way of magically putting a single object in multiple places. The structure of a wave function is defined simply by what you consider to be a collection of objects that are simultaneously isolated from the rest of the universe at a given time. A wave function quite easily spans many objects all at once since it is merely a statistical description of the disposition of that system as seen from the outside, and nothing more. It is not exactly a ‘thing’ in and of itself insomuch as collections of indescribably simple objects tend to behave in absolutely consistent ways among themselves. Where it becomes wave-like and weird is that we have definable limits to how precisely we can understand what’s going on at this basic level and that our inability to directly ‘interact’ with that level more or less assures that we can’t ever know everything about that level or how it behaves. Quantum mechanics follows from there. It really is all about what’s knowable; building a situation where certain things are selectively knowable is what it means to build a quantum computer.

That’s admittedly pretty weird if you stop and think about it, but not crazy or magical in that wide-eyed new agey smack-babbling way.

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