In Brief
MIT scientists have developed a 5-atom quantum computer, one that is able to render traditional encryption obsolete.
A new Computer

Researchers from MIT say that they have developed the world’s first five-atom quantum computer, and they assert that it is capable of cracking today’s traditional encryption methods—today’s most notable encryption methods.

To break this down a bit, in computing, numbers are traditionally binary (represented by 0 and 1). However, in quantum computing, these units are known as “qubits,” which are in a state of superposition, being simultaneously 0 and 1. This opens a number of doors in relation to computing and encryption.

This is just a very basic overview, the video below delves into the workings and purposes a bit deeper.

Now then, because of the way that the computer functions, it typically takes about 12 qubits to factor the number 15. What researchers at MIT and the University of Innsbruck, Austria have done is bring that number down to just 5 qubits, with each qubit represented by one atom.

But perhaps what it most notable about all this is that the system will feature scalability, allowing more atoms and lasers to be added. This is important, as it is the use of laser pulses that stabilizes the quantum system and holds atoms in an ion trap. So in short, the scalability will enable the building of bigger and faster quantum computers, ones that can factor much larger numbers.

Making a 5 Atom Computer

The creation of this five atom quantum computer comes in response to a challenge posed in 1994 by Professor Peter Shor of MIT. Professor Shor developed a quantum algorithm that’s able to calculate a large number’s prime factors more efficiently than traditional computers, with 15 being the smallest figure to meaningfully demonstrate the algorithm.

The new system was able to return the correct factors and with a confidence upwards of 99 percent.

Professor Isaac Chuan of MIT said: “We show that Shor’s algorithm, the most complex quantum algorithm known to date, is realizable in a way where, yes, all you have to do is go in the lab, apply more technology, and you should be able to make a bigger quantum computer.”

Of course, this may be a little easier said than done. “It might still cost an enormous amount of money to build—you won’t be building a quantum computer and putting it on your desktop anytime soon—but now it’s much more an engineering effort, and not a basic physics question,” Chuang added.

Yet, Chuang has his team are hopeful for the future of quantum computing, saying that they “foresee it being straightforwardly scalable, once the apparatus can trap more atoms and more laser beams can control the pulses…We see no physical reason why that is not going to be in the cards.”

Their findings have been published in the  journal Science.

This article has been updated to better reflect the specific kinds of encryption that this development relates to.