Quantum computer Qubit
A five-qubit array developed by scientists at UC Santa Barbara. Erik Lucero

Physicists at the University of California Santa Barbara have developed an error-free array of qubits that could pave the way for commercial quantum computers.

Quantum computing has been widely hailed as the next technological revolution, capable of increasing processing powers exponentially in relation to the current abilities of classical computers.

The research, published today in the journal Nature, demonstrated a 99% level of qubit reliability, addressing one of the fundamental problems faced in the development of quantum computers for practical purposes.

"We hope this will be seen as a foundational breakthrough, perhaps even be seen as the rallying cry for building a fault-tolerant quantum computer," Rami Barends, co-lead author of the study told IBTimes UK.

The results show for the first time that superconducting qubits can be placed at the fault-tolerant threshold, with a reliability that could be scalable to additional qubits and thus vastly greater processing power.

"Quantum hardware is very, very unreliable compared to classical hardware," says Austin Fowler, a staff scientist in the physics department at UC Santa Barbara. "Even the best state-of-the-art hardware is unreliable. Our paper shows that for the first time reliability has been reached."

Endless applications

Quantum computers combine computer science with quantum physics, replacing traditional bits that are used in digital communications with quantum bits, or qubits.

Qubits obey the rules of quantum physics by operating in multiple states at once - in a state of superposition - rather than just the two states in which bits function.

If it seems difficult to understand, that's because it is. Richard Feyman, a renowned quantum theorist, once quipped: "If you think you understand quantum physics, you don't understand quantum physics."

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computers, widely hailed as the next technological revolution, combine quantum mechanics with computer science to exponentially speed up processing. Quantum bits, or qubits, act in a state of superposition that allows them to operate in multiple states at once, rather than just the two states in which traditional bits function.

The most obvious application for quantum computers is with complex optimisation problems that arrive through the vast amounts of data that is currently being produced.

This could have implications on virtually any field, generating new and useful insights into economic systems, the environment, medicine and space travel.

Some scientists, including director of Nasa's Ames Research Centre Pete Worden, have even suggested that quantum computers could establish a fundamental theory to help understand the universe.

"To me the most important question is: Are we alone?" Worden said. "I have a feeling that quantum computers, as they mature, are going to help us answer that question."