Physicists say they have coaxed tiny artificial atoms into communicating, in an advance that may lead to super-fast quantum computers.
Quantum computers hold the promise of being enormously powerful, capable of solving in seconds problems that take today's fastest machines years to crack.
So far, physicists have worked mostly on developing the most basic of elements that can store information known as quantum bits, or qubits. But a series of papers in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature suggest that researchers have found a way to get these qubits to communicate over a distance — for instance, across a computer chip.
In the past, the best qubits could do was talk to neighboring qubits, much like the childhood game of telephone.
But researchers from Yale University have found a way to move information stored in a stationary quantum bit via a microwave photon to another stationary quantum bit on the same chip.
"That is the most elementary step in building and operating a quantum computer," Yale physics professor Steve Girvin said in a telephone interview.
"It's a small step. It's only two qubits," Girvin said. "But it is a nontrivial step towards this very difficult goal of building a quantum computer."
Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, described a similar feat in a separate paper in Nature. They repeatedly transferred quantum information between two qubits on a tiny cable. This technique also gave the qubits more staying power. Normally, qubits maintain the same state for only half a microsecond.
Quantum computers must take advantage of the unusual rules of quantum mechanics, the principles that govern nature's smallest particles.
"Quantum information is much more delicate than classical information, but much more powerful," Girvin said. "It is the delicate part that we have to be good engineers to deal with so we can take advantage of the much more powerful part."