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Researchers from the University of Maryland and IBM have pitted their quantum computers against each other to determine which is the superior technology. (image) An IBM Quantum Computer Chip. (via MIT Technology Review)


Quantum physics refers to the laws that govern and explain the behaviors of quantum particles (smallest possible discrete objects), and this branch of scientific theory allows for particles to exist in two physical states simultaneously (i.e. particle and wave). Essentially, quantum computers are to traditional computers what quantum physics is to classical physics. Whereas traditional computers use binary systems; coding bits as either zeros or ones, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can assume “superpositions” of both 0 and 1 simultaneously. According to Gabriel Popkin of Science, it is also possible to, “join the superposition states of many qubits,” which gives, “[Quantum computers] potential calculating power that grows exponentially with every added bit.” The quantum computing technologies of both IBM and the University of Maryland researchers are still in their infancy, but they both present promising, and unique approaches to a burgeoning technological field with potentially very wide practical benefits. Though, the states of the qubits are fragile such that small external disturbances can cause superpositions to collapse into either a 0 or a 1.


The quantum computer built by researchers at the University of Maryland is built around five ytterbium ions that are held in an electromagnetic trap and manipulated by lasers, and IBM’s quantum computer, on the other hand, essentially works through five small loops of superconducting metal that can be manipulated by microwave signals. IBM’s device is also the only quantum computer that can be programmed online by users through a cloud system, rather than exclusively by scientists in a lab.


This technological faceoff marks the first time that two different quantum computing technologies can be compared in an “algorithm-crunching” exercise, but the victor remains somewhat unclear. When it came to the competition, a set of standard algorithms was run on each device, and the outputs were compared to test the computers’ performance. IBM's quantum computer was faster but less accurate than that of the researchers from the University of Maryland. One test revealed that Maryland’s computer was 77.1 percent accurate, while IBM’s was only 35.1 percent accurate. However,  IBM’s was up to 1,000 faster than its competitor, so therein lies the ambiguity. Though, there is no need for a champion because, according to Popkin, “both labs are already working on more reliable next-generation devices with more qubits.” When it comes to advancing quantum computer technology, like many other things in life, there is no time like the present.


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