Probabilistic computers could be the first practical quantum computer

A joint academic project involving engineers and researchers at Purdue University and Tohoku University was able to design and construct prototype hardware that uses, probabilistic bits, or p-bits, instead of the traditional qubits used on a standard quantum computer.

Quantum computers are completely separate from traditional binary data-type computers of today, due to the design of the qubit. Unlike your ordinary bit, which has either a one (1) or zero (0) value, a qubit has the third superpositioned value — which is both one AND zero. This makes storing data on quantum computers exponentially higher, and the calculations possible on it can even allow it to theoretically break any type of digital encryption today.

There is, however, one significantly huge obstacle in the development of quantum computers — maintaining the integrity of qubit values stored on on them. As of now, the most advanced quantum computers and their prototypes require active cooling of several hundred degrees below the typical freezing point of water. This not only makes them impractical for regular use, but also makes them incredibly expensive, hindering its development as the next replacement for traditional digital (binary) computers.

The recent research was able to solve this data integrity problem by introducing a new type of qubit that they officially named as the p-bit. Probabilistic bits, much like qubits, also hold the values of one (1), zero (0), and one-zero (1/0). But instead of “floating” in a mixed state for one-zero, the p-bit instead rapidly fluctuates between one and zero to replicate the same base value. This considerably lowers the energy necessary to create the third bit-type, and theoretically removes the necessity of using cryogenic systems to keep that value from collapsing into regular binary.

The device that was used to demonstrate p-bits was built using the same design as a magnetoresistive RAM. With this type of RAM, magnet orientation determines the value of each bit, with the addition of an intentional instability factor in order to achieve the aforementioned one-zero fluctuating effect. By connecting it to a transistor, the fluctuations can then be controlled to determine data value, which can then be hooked up together to build the probabilistic computer.

The bulk of the device was rather crude, since the setup simply combined off-the-shelf binary-type transistors and MRAMs. The completed prototype was interconnected with eight p-bit units, so it’s not exactly going to break codes anytime soon.

Nonetheless, the presentation of the idea alone as being possible opens an entire realm of applications for this cheaper and easier-to-build quantum computer. In fact, it is not much of a stretch to assume that p-bits might very well even change the course of quantum computer design forever. Being that it is easier to design, and can be used at room temperature, an entry-level consumer version of it might not be far off within the next few years.

Featured Image credit via IBM

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