Computing prime factors may sound like an elementary math problem, but try it with a large number, say one that contains more than 600 digits, and the task becomes enormously challenging and impossibly time-consuming. Now, a group of researchers at UC Santa Barbara has designed and fabricated a quantum processor capable of factoring a composite number -- in this case the number 15 -- into its constituent prime factors, 3 and 5.
Although modest compared to a 600-digit number, the achievement represents a milestone on the road map to building a quantum computer capable of factoring much larger numbers, with significant implications for cryptography and cybersecurity. The results are published in the advance online issue of the journal Nature Physics.
"Fifteen is a small number, but what's important is we've shown that we can run a version of Peter Shor's prime factoring algorithm on a solid state quantum processor. This is really exciting and has never been done before," said Erik Lucero, the paper's lead author. Now a postdoctoral researcher in experimental quantum computing at IBM, Lucero was a doctoral student in physics at UCSB when the research was conducted and the paper was written.
"What is important is that the concepts used in factoring this small number remain the same when factoring much larger numbers," said Andrew Cleland, a professor of physics at UCSB and a collaborator on the experiment. "We just need to scale up the size of this processor to something much larger. This won't be easy, but the path forward is clear."