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University of Chicago researchers and their colleagues at University College London have performed a proof-of-concept experiment that will aid the future development of programmable quantum computers.

Many complex problems are difficult and slow to solve using conventional computers, and over the last several years, research has grown steadily toward developing quantum computation. In particular, optimization problems such as the "traveling salesman" problem, which calculates the shortest possible route needed to visit a set of towns, become intractable as the number of towns grows.

A quantum computer would exploit effects on the atomic and molecular scales to solve such problems dramatically faster than conventional computers. Recently a first generation of specialized computers has become available -- with a new architecture that exploits quantum mechanics to help solve problems akin to the traveling salesman problem, with up to a few hundred towns.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team from the James Franck Institute at UChicago and the London Centre for Nanotechnology at University College London describes an experiment that was performed on a crystal containing trillions, rather than hundreds, of quantum mechanical spins, which replicates some of the features of the current generation of much smaller, specialized computers.

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