A Chinese startup has unveiled plans to sell a quantum desktop computer for under $ 5,000. The new handheld device is part of the SpinQ lineup for schools and colleges. It is manufactured by Shenzhen SpinQ Technology based in Shenzhen, China.
This isn’t the company’s first quantum computer. The firm began selling a desktop quantum computer last year for about $ 50,000. In addition to the rather high price, the computer also needed a change of office furniture, since the table under it had to be very strong, given that the device weighed 55 kg.
However, the new line will be simpler, more portable and cheaper. “This simplified version is expected to be released in the fourth quarter of 2021, so that it will become more accessible to most schools around the world,” the developers of the device say. The device’s price is in stark contrast to commercial quantum computers, which can cost around $ 10 million and process over 50 qubits.
SpinQ is not a very powerful computer by quantum standards, it can handle only 2 qubits and is based on a completely different technology called nuclear magnetic resonance. It works by trapping specially selected molecules in a powerful magnetic field and then exposing them to radio frequency pulses to control the spins of the atoms they contain.
After each set of radio pulses, the atoms emit their own radio frequency signals that indicate their new state. In this way, you can flip the spin of atoms – which is equivalent to changing 0 to 1 – and make the spins of neighboring atoms interact, which can mimic mathematical operations.
The compound underlying SpinQ is dimethyl phosphite, a tetrahedral molecule made up of one phosphorus, one hydrogen, oxygen, and two CH3O groups. At room temperature, it takes the form of a colorless liquid. Dimethylphosphite is an ideal choice because the phosphorus and hydrogen atoms are bonded and close enough to interact and can be manipulated independently.
For radio signals from hydrogen and phosphorus atoms to be strong enough to be picked up, a huge number of molecules must be used. This requires a few drops of liquid, which are in a small bubble in the center of a powerful magnetic field. The technique is well understood and has long been used to create medical images of the body. And the first quantum computers built in the 1990s took exactly the same approach.
At the time, this approach was costly because magnetic fields strong enough to do the job could only be created by powerful superconducting magnets. They needed to be cooled down to liquid helium temperature, a difficult task requiring expensive and bulky equipment. But instead, the SpinQ team uses permanent magnets – they can create fields tens of thousands of times stronger than Earth’s.
For quantum computing, the magnetic field must also be regular. Therefore, the team uses a technique called shimming, which generates a different magnetic field that can neutralize any disturbance in a stronger field. The result is a very powerful, regular magnetic field. That’s all. all that remains is to connect the device to a regular computer with a software package capable of controlling it.
Although the SpinQ device only processes 2 qubits, it is capable of performing a number of typical quantum computations. For example, SpinQ can implement a version of Grover’s algorithm that can search the database faster than the classic algorithm.
With only 2 qubits, none of these algorithms will be more powerful than what is possible on a conventional computer. In fact, they didn’t come close. But the goal of technology is to demonstrate quantum computing and allow students to try it out for themselves.
The SpinQ team reports that they have shipped their earlier design called the SpinQ Gemini to institutions in Canada, Taiwan and China. But at $ 50,000 apiece, buyers should be well provided for. This is why the company is launching a cheaper version later this year on the same platform. But the firm is also working on a more powerful device that can handle 4 qubits.
At the moment, these devices do not match the power of quantum computers with which Google, IBM, Microsoft and others work. But SpinQ device makers are unlikely to compete with these giants. Their goal is education.
“We believe low-cost, portable quantum computers will facilitate the hands-on learning experience of quantum computing at all levels,” the manufacturers say.