What is Quantum Error? made simple

H Hannan

What is Quantum Error?
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Quantum computers promise revolutionary capabilities in fields ranging from cryptography to machine learning. But realizing the full potential of quantum computing requires overcoming a fundamental challenge – quantum error. Unlike classical bits which can simply be 0 or 1, qubits exist in fragile quantum superpositions of states. These superposed states quickly decohere and collapse due to microscopic interactions with the environment, leading to errors in quantum algorithms. Developing methods to detect, mitigate, and correct quantum errors is essential for building scalable, fault-tolerant quantum computers.

What is Quantum Error?

Quantum error refers to any unintended disturbance to a quantum system that causes it to deviate from its intended state. On a quantum computer, the basic units of information are qubits, or quantum bits. Unlike classical bits which are always in a definite state of 0 or 1, qubits can exist in a superposition of 0 and 1 states according to quantum mechanics principles. However, this superposition is very delicate and easily disrupted by interactions with the surrounding environment. Even the smallest fluctuations can cause the qubit state to decohere or decay into an ordinary classical mixture of 0 and 1, losing its uniquely quantum properties. This decoherence introduces errors into any ongoing quantum computations.

Quantum errors can also occur when applying quantum logic gates, which are basic operations on qubits analogous to classical logic gates. Small inaccuracies and imperfections in the control fields implementing quantum gates can alter the gate operation, again leading to unintended changes in qubit states. Overall, quantum systems are inherently prone to errors due to the fundamental fragility arising from quantum superposition and entanglement. Reducing quantum error is paramount for enabling large-scale, reliable quantum computation.

Sources of Quantum Error

There are several key sources of quantum error to consider:


As mentioned above, decoherence refers to the loss of quantum behaviour when qubits unintentionally interact with the environment. Examples include background thermal vibrations or electromagnetic radiation. This environmental noise causes the qubits to destabilize and collapse from their coherent quantum state into a classical mixture.

Gate Errors

Inaccuracies in the external controls applied to implement quantum logic gates can alter their operation. For instance, a small over-rotation in a qubit unitary control field would induce a gate error. Gate errors also include crosstalk where controls applied to one qubit affect neighboring qubits.

Qubit Readout Error

Measuring the final state of qubits after computation can also introduce errors. The measurement process is itself probabilistic, so occasionally the measured state will not match the actual qubit state.

Memory Errors

If qubits need to be stored during computation, their superposition state may decay over time before operations resume. Maintaining qubit coherence for arbitrarily long times remains challenging.

Hardware Imperfections

Variability and defects in the underlying qubit platforms and control hardware lead to errors. For example, small variations in superconducting qubit device parameters across a chip cause differences in operational fidelity.

Error Models

To analyze the effects of errors on quantum algorithms and devices, physicist and computer scientists use simplified error models. Common error models include:

  • Bit-flip – A qubit spontaneously flips from 0 to 1 or vice versa. This represents decoherence-induced decay.
  • Phase-flip – The relative phase of the 0 and 1 states in a qubit superposition drifts over time. This causes a loss of information stored in the phase.
  • Depolarizing – With some probability, a completely random single-qubit error occurs. This combines aspects of bit-flip and phase-flip into a simple general error.
  • Amplitude damping – Energy decays from the 1 state to the 0 state at a fixed rate, modelled after energy dissipation processes.

Researchers can construct more complex error models by expanding these to include multi-qubit gate errors, correlated errors, and memory errors. The specifics depend on the particular hardware implementation. Error models allow simulating the cumulative effects of noise, decoherence, and other imperfections on algorithm success to quantify an error rate or probability.

Quantum Error Correction

To achieve useful, reliable quantum computation, we need techniques that actively detect and correct errors, not just passively minimize them. Quantum error correction provides this capability by encoding logical qubits in a protected subspace using redundant ancilla qubits.

The simplest example is the 3-qubit repetition code. A logical qubit state is encoded in three physical qubits. If one of the three flips, we can still recover the original state through majority vote. This allows correcting a single bit flip error. Other codes like the 5-qubit perfect code can correct both bit and phase flip errors by mapping a logical qubit to entangled states of 5 physical qubits.

In general, these quantum error correcting codes work by projective syndrome measurement of ancilla qubits to detect errors without collapsing the encoded state, followed by conditional recovery operations to correct the error. Shor’s 9-qubit code provided the first demonstration that quantum error correction was even possible, overcoming concerns that it would violate the no-cloning theorem.

Since then, many more sophisticated quantum error correction schemes have been developed, such as surface codes, colour codes, and topological codes. Their error tolerance thresholds have steadily improved, albeit still short of the ultimate tolerance required for fully fault-tolerant quantum computing. Active quantum error correction will need to be incorporated both within quantum circuits and at the hardware level to achieve this goal.

Mitigating Quantum Errors

While quantum error correction holds the most promise for true fault tolerance, other techniques are being pursued to mitigate errors in pre-fault-tolerant devices:

Quantum noise reduction – Improving qubit coherence times by refining materials, device designs, and fabrication processes to minimize coupling to environmental noise and loss.

Architectural improvements – Interleaving error detection/corrections between logic gates and optimizing qubit connectivity to contain errors.

Robust gate designs – Constructing control sequences and pulse shapes to reduce leakage errors and enhance gate fidelity.

Shorter gate times – Minimizing exposure of qubits to noise during operations by speeding up control pulses and gates.

Operating at lower temperatures – Reducing thermal noise by moving to millikelvin cryogenic temperatures where qubit coherence is enhanced.

Qubit cross-talk suppression – Designing chips to prevent cross-talk through electromagnetic
isolation or all-microwave control.

While not as rigorous as quantum error correction, these techniques compensate for individual hardware imperfections and physics limitations to moderately enhance performance without the full resource cost of active error correction.

The Path to Fault Tolerance

What threshold of physical qubit error rate must be achieved for effective error correction? Estimates vary but common thresholds cited are between 10-3 and 10-4. Today’s superconducting qubits have error rates around 10-2, while leading quantum dots and trapped ions are near 10-3. So we are approaching error correction viability but further innovations will be required to cross the threshold.

Additionally, overhead costs will be substantial. Logical error rates below 10-15 are desired for useful applications, requiring thousands to millions of noisy physical qubits to encode each logical qubit. The massive qubit overhead combined with stringent control electronics and hardware organization will make the engineering of fully fault-tolerant quantum computers extremely challenging.

Early systems may demonstrate quantum advantage with uncorrected qubits, but correcting errors will be essential for any practical applications. With so many complex trade-offs and limitations, realizing commercial-scale fault tolerance is a multifaceted endeavour requiring expertise across physics, materials science, quantum information theory, computer science, and engineering. However, the dedicated research worldwide indicates steady progress toward this goal.

Outlook on Quantum Error

While quantum error remains a key obstacle, the remarkable progress made in understanding noise processes, simulating error models, and developing error mitigation techniques points the way forward. We are transitioning quantum computing out of a purely theoretical field toward an experimental and engineering endeavour through concerted efforts to tackle errors head-on.

In conjunction with hardware development reaching new qubit number and coherence milestones regularly, we are steadily gaining the knowledge and tools needed to control quantum systems to an unprecedented degree. There is still a long way to go and many open questions remain. But the Quantum Era is advancing with a new generation of engineers and scientists working tirelessly to overcome quantum errors and build mankind’s first scalable quantum computers capable of delivering on the enormous promises of the technology.

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