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09/13/2000 07:00:00

NSF funds new Institute for Quantum Information at Caltech

The National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $5 million grant to the California Institute of Technology to create an institute devoted to quantum information science—a new field that could ultimately lead to devices such as quantum computers.

The announcement was part of a $90 million information technology research initiative the NSF announced today in Washington. The awards are aimed at seeding fundamental research in innovative applications of information technology.

Caltech's new Institute for Quantum Information will draw on several fields, including quantum physics, theoretical computer science, mathematics, and control and dynamical systems engineering, says founding director John Preskill, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech.

"The goal of the institute will be to understand ways in which the principles of quantum physics can be exploited to enhance the performance of tasks involving the transmission, processing, and acquisition of information," says Preskill, who has worked on quantum computation algorithms for the last five years.

"The most potentially exciting aspect of the field is the promise of a quantum computer," he says. "If you could process quantum states instead of classical information, there are problems you could solve that could never be solved with classical technology."

Quantum computers would be more efficient than conventional computers because they would greatly reduce the number of steps the computer would have to jump through to solve many problems. For example, the encryption used to protect credit cards relies on the fact that it would take huge amounts of time for a conventional computer to break down a large number into its factors (the numbers one multiplies together that will equal this number).

It now takes the best computers several months to find the factors of a 130-digit number, and it would take 10 billion years to factor a 400-digit number—nearly the entire age of the universe. But a quantum computer with the same clock speed could factor the 400-digit number in about a minute, according to the figures Preskill has worked out.

At the same time, quantum information would provide a new means to thoroughly protect information from any intruder, Preskill says.

"By using quantum information, it's possible to make unbreakable codes, and this security is founded on fundamental physical laws," he says.

Also, the work of the new institute will advance research in the further miniaturization of classical electronic components. Quantum effects are becoming increasingly important for microelectronics as devices continue to shrink toward atomic dimensions.

In addition to Preskill, the Institute for Quantum Information will be led by two co-principal investigators who, in consultation with other Caltech researchers, will guide and supervise scientific activities. The initial co-principal investigators will be Jeff Kimble, an experimental physicist who has done groundbreaking work in the transmission of quantum information, and John Doyle, a professor of electrical engineering who is interested in control issues of quantum systems.

Other investigators at the institute will include Michelle Effros, Hideo Mabuchi, Michael Roukes, Axel Scherer, and Leonard Schulman, all Caltech faculty members. The institute will develop a substantial visitors' program and will aim at hiring postdoctoral researchers and graduate students who wish to enter the field of quantum information systems.

Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631