Future quantum computers: Powerful machines that could help people solve problems in critical areas such as climate change and drug discovery.

Today’s quantum computers: buggy and clunky with a long way to go.

But exactly how far do quantum computers still need to go?

The U.S. Department of Energy charged physics’ Sophia Economou and her collaborators to gauge the status and identify possible application areas for existing technology.

Quantum computers process information in a fundamentally different way from today’s computers, making it so that algorithms for certain types of computations are incredibly fast. And while the technology is advancing rapidly, it’s early days yet.

“Quantum computers are still not the way we envision them in their final form as robust, universal machines that can implement algorithms of practical interest,” said Economou, the Marshall T. Hahn Chair in Physics at Virginia Tech. “They're still at a very primitive stage.”

Referred to as “noisy intermediate-scale quantum computing,” quantum devices in this stage are far less powerful than a fully functional quantum computer. But they may still be useful in solving simpler problems in certain fields, said Economou who directs the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering.

But which problems? Which fields? And how can researchers reduce the number of errors to advance this technology?

Economou’s joint project is part of a larger $12 million Department of Energy campaign with funding for six collaborative projects to answer these questions and more:

  • What can the physical limits of quantum processors tell us about what quantum computers can and cannot do?
  • How can we use early-stage quantum devices to move our understanding of when and how quantum computers might be more useful?
  • How can we best assess the utility of a given quantum processor to advance transformative science and identify its potential impact?

“We want to know how we can put these quantum computers to work before we have these large-scale powerful machines,” Economou said. “And, in doing so, we can understand more about how we can actually achieve their full potential.”

With a $400,000 portion of the funding, Economou is working with researchers from the University of Tennessee, the University of Southern California, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the MITRE Corp.

Economou, a member of the Virginia Tech College of Science faculty, was recently named a American Physical Society Fellow and is also a Commonwealth Cyber Initiative researcher.

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