Student's Physics Homework Helps Solve Quantum Computing Problem

The student's 'simple but ingenious' change to quantum error-correcting code has caught the attention of Amazon Web Services.
Derya Ozdemir
Co-author Dr. Ben Brown from the University of Sydney Nano Institute and School of Physics and Pablo BonillaUniversity of Sydney

The timeline to achieve scalable quantum computation might have been shortened thanks to a 21-year-old student from the University of Sydney. By accomplishing what is praised to be a 'simple but ingenious' modification to a quantum error-correcting code that was studied for more than 20 years, Pablo Bonilla Ataides, a science undergraduate, has made a breakthrough and attracted global attention. 

What was part of a second-year physics course has now led to a published study, co-authored by university researchers, which will be used by cloud giant Amazon Web Services (AWS) and in leading U.S. universities’ quantum programs.

What makes the modification so special?

"Quantum technology is in its infancy, partly because we haven’t been able to overcome the inherent instability in the machines that produce so many errors," Bonilla Ataides explained in a press release by the university. While errors are rare in the digital transistors — switches — that classical computers use, the 'switches' in quantum computers — qubits — are particularly susceptible to interference from the external environment. This is why scientists need quantum error correction, to improve the machines by suppressing qubit errors and making them less noisy. 

"In second-year physics, I was asked to look at some commonly used error-correcting code to see if we could improve it. By flipping half of the quantum switches – or qubits – in our design, we found we could effectively double our ability to suppress errors," Bonilla explained.

The current code was used for nearly two decades to correct errors in quantum computing, and with the alterations Bonilla made, the sources needed to detect and correct errors were significantly reduced. This doubled the capacity to identify and fix the errors. 

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Picked up by Amazon quantum researchers

Bonilla's work, published in Nature Communications, will now star in AWS's error-correction techniques and can be effectively retrofitted to the surface codes being developed across the world.

AWS is not the only one, and teams at Yale University are also interested in utilizing the new code. Assistant Professor Shruti Puri from Yale University's quantum research program said, "What amazes me about this new code is its sheer elegance. Its remarkable error-correcting properties are coming from a simple modification to a code that has been studied extensively for almost two decades.

"It is extremely relevant for a new generation of quantum technology being developed at Yale and elsewhere. With this new code, I believe, we have considerably shortened the timeline to achieve scalable quantum computation."

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