A team at the University of Sussex has come up with the first practical blueprint for constructing a giant quantum computer, a thinking device that can rapidly give answers to problems that would take an ordinary computer billions of years to solve.
A proof-of-concept early prototype is planned within two years.
The ground-breaking design could theoretically pave the way for a machine as large as a football field with unimagined levels of computing power.
The Sussex scientists will hope their creation will prove more useful than the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ comic space opera, which said the solution to the meaning of life was “42”.
Quantum computers, which harness weird effects influencing the nature of reality at the subatomic level, have the potential to solve deep cosmological mysteries, create life-saving medicines, transform weather forecasting and enhance encryption.
Quantum computing has largely been a theoretical concept with enormous potential, but little in the way of practical development.
The new design, which is set out in the journal Science Advances, is seen as a game changer because it allows connection speeds between individual quantum computing modules 100,000 times faster than previously envisaged.
Professor Winfried Hensinger, head of the Ion Quantum Technology Group at the University of Sussex, said: “For many years, people said that it was completely impossible to construct an actual quantum computer.
“With our work we have not only shown that it can be done, but now we are delivering a nuts and bolts construction plan to build an actual large-scale machine.”
The key to a quantum computer is its ability to operate on the basis of a circuit not only being “on” or “off” but occupying a state that is both “on” and “off” at the same time.
This is based on the laws of quantum mechanics, which allow very small particles to exist in a number of “superposition” states until they are observed or disturbed.
In a similar way, a coin flipped in the air cannot be said to occupy a “heads” or “tails” state until it is caught.
While a normal computer has “bits” made up of zeros and ones, a quantum computer has “qubits” which can take on the value of zero or one or both at the same time.
In the past, scientists proposed using fibre optic connections to link quantum computer models.
The new concept proposed by the team at the University of Sussex introduces electronic field connections that allow charged atoms, or ions, to be transported from one module to another.