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What is Quantum Computing?

A close-up shot of a computer chip board with a diamond-shaped chip at the center, framed in gold metal, with bundles of copper wiring attached at the top and bottom.
The D-Wave processor, a quantum system that was operated at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.
Credit: D-Wave

Harnessing the quantum realm for NASA’s future complex computing needs

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is the heart of the agency’s advanced computing efforts, including its exploration and research of quantum computing. Ames leverages its location in the heart of Silicon Valley to forge partnerships with private industry as well. Using these collaborations, the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility’s resources, and expertise in quantum computing, Ames works to evaluate the potential of quantum computing for NASA missions.

The properties that govern physics at the extremely small scales and low temperatures of the quantum realm are puzzling and unique. Quantum computing is the practice of harnessing those properties to enable revolutionary algorithms that traditional computers wouldn’t be able to run. Algorithms are a set of instructions to solve a problem or accomplish a task in computing. Quantum algorithms require descriptions of what operations should do during computation on a quantum computer, which often takes the form of a software program called a “quantum circuit.” 

NASA’s computing needs are escalating as the agency aims for more complex missions across the solar system, as well as continued research in the Earth sciences and aeronautics. Quantum computing, as it matures in the coming years, could provide powerful solutions.

Quantum mechanics describes effects such as superposition, where a particle can be in many different states at once. Quantum entanglement allows particles to be correlated with each other in unique ways that can be utilized by quantum computing. Though why these properties and more occur is still a mystery of science, the way in which they function has been well characterized and researched, allowing quantum computing experts to design hardware and algorithms to use these properties to their advantage.

Ames’ Role

Since 1972, when Ames center director Hans Mark brought the first massively parallel computer – a kind of computer that uses multiple processors at the same time, or in parallel – the center has been at the forefront of developing advances in computing.

Today, the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (QuAIL), is where NASA conducts research to determine the capabilities of quantum computers and their potential to support the agency’s goals in the decades to come. Located at Ames, the lab conducts research on quantum applications and algorithms, develops tools for quantum computing, and investigates the fundamental physics behind quantum computing. The lab also partners with other quantum labs across the country, such as those at Google; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or ORNL; Rigetti; and is part of  two of the Department of Energy’s centers under the National Quantum Initiative, specifically the Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage and Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center.

Applications and Algorithms

What future missions could quantum computing help realize?

Quantum computing is a field of study in its infancy. So far, it is too early to implement quantum computing into NASA missions. The role of QuAIL is to investigate quantum computing’s potential to serve the agency’s future needs, for missions yet to be proposed or even imagined.

The key to quantum computing is quantum algorithms – special algorithms uniquely constructed to take advantage of quantum properties, like quantum superposition and quantum entanglement. The properties of the quantum world allow for computations that would take billions of years on classical machines. By experimenting with designing quantum algorithms, QuAIL hopes to use quantum computers to tackle calculations that otherwise would be impossible.

Current research looks into applying quantum algorithms  to optimize the planning and scheduling of mission operations, machine learning for Earth science data, and simulations for the design of new materials for use in aeronautics and space exploration. In the future, quantum algorithms could impact NASA’s missions broadly. QuAIL’s role is to help define that future.

Quantum Computing Tools

How can software support quantum algorithms and their applications?

There are a variety of tools QuAIL is developing to support quantum computing. Those tools can help characterize “noise” in quantum devices, assist in error mitigation, compile algorithms for specific hardware, and simulate quantum algorithms.

Because quantum computers need extremely precise and stable conditions to operate, seemingly small issues such as impurities on a superconducting chip or accumulated charged particles can impact a computation. Thus, error mitigation will play a critical role in realizing mature quantum computers.

By modeling what kind of errors occur and the effect they have on calculations, a process called noise characterization, quantum researchers can design error mitigation techniques that can run alongside quantum algorithms to keep them on track.

All algorithms need to be compiled for use on specific hardware. Because quantum hardware is so distinct from traditional computers, researchers must make special efforts to compile quantum algorithms for quantum hardware. In the same way software needs to be coded to a particular operating system, quantum algorithms need to be coded to function on a quantum computer’s specific “operating system,” which also takes hardware into account.

Tools that allow researchers to simulate quantum circuits using non-quantum hardware are key to QuAIL’s objective to evaluate the potential of quantum hardware. By testing the same algorithm on both a traditional supercomputer using a quantum circuit simulator and on real quantum hardware, researchers can find the limits of the supercomputer.

NASA can also use these simulated quantum circuits to check the work of quantum hardware, ensuring that algorithms are being properly executed up until the limit at which the simulated quantum circuit is reached. This was an essential component of confirming that a recent milestone achieved by Google in collaboration with NASA and ORNL, demonstrating the ability to compute in seconds what would take even the largest and most advanced supercomputers days or weeks, had indeed been achieved.

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Members of the news media interested in covering this topic should reach out to the Ames newsroom.