Monthly Archives: December 2016

Toward practical quantum

Quantum computers are largely hypothetical devices that could perform some calculations much more rapidly than conventional computers can. Instead of the bits of classical computation, which can represent 0 or 1, quantum computers consist of quantum bits, or qubits, which can, in some sense, represent 0 and 1 simultaneously.

Although quantum systems with as many as 12 qubits have been demonstrated in the lab, building quantum computers complex enough to perform useful computations will require miniaturizing qubit technology, much the way the miniaturization of transistors enabled modern computers.

Trapped ions are probably the most widely studied qubit technology, but they’ve historically required a large and complex hardware apparatus. In today’s Nature Nanotechnology, researchers from MIT and MIT Lincoln Laboratory report an important step toward practical quantum computers, with a paper describing a prototype chip that can trap ions in an electric field and, with built-in optics, direct laser light toward each of them.

“If you look at the traditional assembly, it’s a barrel that has a vacuum inside it, and inside that is this cage that’s trapping the ions. Then there’s basically an entire laboratory of external optics that are guiding the laser beams to the assembly of ions,” says Rajeev Ram, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and one of the senior authors on the paper. “Our vision is to take that external laboratory and miniaturize much of it onto a chip.”

Caged in

The Quantum Information and Integrated Nanosystems group at Lincoln Laboratory was one of several research groups already working to develop simpler, smaller ion traps known as surface traps. A standard ion trap looks like a tiny cage, whose bars are electrodes that produce an electric field. Ions line up in the center of the cage, parallel to the bars. A surface trap, by contrast, is a chip with electrodes embedded in its surface. The ions hover 50 micrometers above the electrodes.

Cage traps are intrinsically limited in size, but surface traps could, in principle, be extended indefinitely. With current technology, they would still have to be held in a vacuum chamber, but they would allow many more qubits to be crammed inside.

“We believe that surface traps are a key technology to enable these systems to scale to the very large number of ions that will be required for large-scale quantum computing,” says Jeremy Sage, who together with John Chiaverini leads Lincoln Laboratory’s trapped-ion quantum-information-processing project. “These cage traps work very well, but they really only work for maybe 10 to 20 ions, and they basically max out around there.”

Performing a quantum computation, however, requires precisely controlling the energy state of every qubit independently, and trapped-ion qubits are controlled with laser beams. In a surface trap, the ions are only about 5 micrometers apart. Hitting a single ion with an external laser, without affecting its neighbors, is incredibly difficult; only a few groups had previously attempted it, and their techniques weren’t  practical for large-scale systems.

Getting onboard

That’s where Ram’s group comes in. Ram and Karan Mehta, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and first author on the new paper, designed and built a suite of on-chip optical components that can channel laser light toward individual ions. Sage, Chiaverini, and their Lincoln Lab colleagues Colin Bruzewicz and Robert McConnell retooled their surface trap to accommodate the integrated optics without compromising its performance. Together, both groups designed and executed the experiments to test the new system.

“Typically, for surface electrode traps, the laser beam is coming from an optical table and entering this system, so there’s always this concern about the beam vibrating or moving,” Ram says. “With photonic integration, you’re not concerned about beam-pointing stability, because it’s all on the same chip that the electrodes are on. So now everything is registered against each other, and it’s stable.”

The researchers’ new chip is built on a quartz substrate. On top of the quartz is a network of silicon nitride “waveguides,” which route laser light across the chip. Above the waveguides is a layer of glass, and on top of that are niobium electrodes with tiny holes in them to allow light to pass through. Beneath the holes in the electrodes, the waveguides break into a series of sequential ridges, a “diffraction grating” precisely engineered to direct light up through the holes and concentrate it into a beam narrow enough that it will target a single ion, 50 micrometers above the surface of the chip.


With the prototype chip, the researchers were evaluating the performance of the diffraction gratings and the ion traps, but there was no mechanism for varying the amount of light delivered to each ion. In ongoing work, the researchers are investigating the addition of light modulators to the diffraction gratings, so that different qubits can simultaneously receive light of different, time-varying intensities. That would make programming the qubits more efficient, which is vital in a practical quantum information system, since the number of quantum operations the system can perform is limited by the “coherence time” of the qubits.

“As far as I know, this is the first serious attempt to integrate optical waveguides in the same chip as an ion trap, which is a very significant step forward on the path to scaling up ion-trap quantum information processors [QIP] to the sort of size which will ultimately contain the number of qubits necessary for doing useful QIP,” says David Lucas, a professor of physics at Oxford University. “Trapped-ion qubits are well-known for being able to achieve record-breaking coherence times and very precise operations on small numbers of qubits. Arguably, the most important area in which progress needs to be made is technologies which will enable the systems to be scaled up to larger numbers of qubits. This is exactly the need being addressed so impressively by this research.”

“Of course, it’s important to appreciate that this is a first demonstration,” Lucas adds. “But there are good prospects for believing that the technology can be improved substantially. As a first step, it’s a wonderful piece of work.”

First major database

After thousands of hours of work, MIT researchers have released the first major database of fully annotated English sentences written by non-native speakers.

The researchers who led the project had already shown that the grammatical quirks of non-native speakers writing in English could be a source of linguistic insight. But they hope that their dataset could also lead to applications that would improve computers’ handling of spoken or written language of non-native English speakers.

“English is the most used language on the Internet, with over 1 billion speakers,” says Yevgeni Berzak, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, who led the new project. “Most of the people who speak English in the world or produce English text are non-native speakers. This characteristic is often overlooked when we study English scientifically or when we do natural-language processing for English.”

Most natural-language-processing systems, which enable smartphone and other computer applications to process requests phrased in ordinary language, are based on machine learning, in which computer systems look for patterns in huge sets of training data. “If you want to handle noncanonical learner language, in terms of the training material that’s available to you, you can only train on standard English,” Berzak explains.

Systems trained on nonstandard English, on the other hand, could be better able to handle the idiosyncrasies of non-native English speakers, such as tendencies to drop or add prepositions, to substitute particular tenses for others, or to misuse particular auxiliary verbs. Indeed, the researchers hope that their work could lead to grammar-correction software targeted to native speakers of other languages.

Diagramming sentences

The researchers’ dataset consists of 5,124 sentences culled from exam essays written by students of English as a second language (ESL). The sentences were drawn, in approximately equal distribution, from native speakers of 10 languages that are the primary tongues of roughly 40 percent of the world’s population.

Every sentence in the dataset includes at least one grammatical error. The original source of the sentences was a collection made public by Cambridge University, which included annotation of the errors, but no other grammatical or syntactic information.

To provide that additional information, Berzak recruited a group of MIT undergraduate and graduate students from the departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), Linguistics, and Mechanical Engineering, led by Carolyn Spadine, a graduate student in linguistics.

After eight weeks of training in how to annotate both grammatically correct and error-ridden sentences, the students began working directly on the data. There are three levels of annotation. The first involves basic parts of speech — whether a word is a noun, a verb, a preposition, and so on. The next is a more detailed description of parts of speech — plural versus singular nouns, verb tenses, comparative and superlative adjectives, and the like.

Next, the annotators charted the syntactic relationships between the words of the sentences, using a relatively new annotation scheme called the Universal Dependency formalism. Syntactic relationships include things like which nouns are the objects of which verbs, which verbs are auxiliaries of other verbs, which adjectives modify which nouns, and so on.

The annotators created syntactic charts for both the corrected and uncorrected versions of each sentence. That required some prior conceptual work, since grammatical errors can make words’ syntactic roles difficult to interpret.

Berzak and Spadine wrote a 20-page guide to their annotation scheme, much of which dealt with the handling of error-ridden sentences. Consistency in the treatment of such sentences is essential to any envisioned application of the dataset: A machine-learning system can’t learn to recognize an error if the error is described differently in different training examples.

Repeatable results

The researchers’ methodology, however, provides good evidence that annotators can chart ungrammatical sentences consistently. For every sentence, one evaluator annotated it completely; another reviewed the annotations and flagged any areas of disagreement; and a third ruled on the disagreements.

There was some disagreement on how to handle ungrammatical sentences — but there was some disagreement on how to handle grammatical sentences, too. In general, levels of agreement were comparable for both types of sentences.

The researchers report these and other results in a paper being presented at the Association for Computational Linguistics annual conference in August. Joining Berzak and Spadine on the paper are Boris Katz, who is Berzak’s advisor and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; and the undergraduate annotators:Jessica Kenney, Jing Xian Wang, Lucia Lam, Keiko Sophie Mori, and Sebastian Garza.

The researchers’ dataset is now one of the 59 datasets available from the organization that oversees the Universal Dependency (UD) standard. Berzak also created an online interfacefor the dataset, so that researchers can look for particular kinds of errors, in sentences produced by native speakers of particular languages, and the like.

“What I find most interesting about the ESL [dataset] is that the use of UD opens up a lot of possibilities for systematically comparing the ESL data not only to native English but also to other languages that have corpora annotated using UD,” says Joakim Nivre, a professor of computational linguistics at Uppsala University in Sweden and one of the developers of the UD standard. “Hopefully, other ESL researchers will follow their example, which will enable further comparisons along several dimensions, ESL to ESL, ESL to native, et cetera.”

“The decision to annotate both incorrect and corrected sentences makes the material very valuable,” Nivre adds. “I can see, for example, how this could be cast as a machine translation task, where the system learns to translate from ESL to English. The current corpus would essentially provide the parallel data necessary to train such a system, and the availability of syntactic annotation for both sides opens up more diverse technical approaches.”

The work was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, under the auspices of MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines.

Bug Finder Automatics

Symbolic execution is a powerful software-analysis tool that can be used to automaticallylocate and even repair programming bugs. Essentially, it traces out every path that a program’s execution might take.

But it tends not to work well with applications written using today’s programming frameworks. An application might consist of only 1,000 lines of new code, but it will generally import functions — such as those that handle virtual buttons — from a programming framework, which includes huge libraries of frequently reused code. The additional burden of evaluating the imported code makes symbolic execution prohibitively time consuming.

Computer scientists address this problem by creating simple models of the imported libraries, which describe their interactions with new programs but don’t require line-by-line evaluation of their code. Building the models, however, is labor-intensive and error prone, and the models require regular updates, as programming frameworks are constantly evolving.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, working with colleagues at the University of Maryland, have taken an important step toward enabling symbolic execution of applications written using programming frameworks, with a system that automatically constructs models of framework libraries.

The researchers compared a model generated by their system with a widely used model of Java’s standard library of graphical-user-interface components, which had been laboriously constructed over a period of years. They found that their new model plugged several holes in the hand-coded one.

They described their results in a paper they presented last week at the International Conference on Software Engineering. Their work was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Expeditions Program.

“Forty years ago, if you wanted to write a program, you went in, you wrote the code, and basically all the code you wrote was the code that executed,” says Armando Solar-Lezama, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, whose group led the new work. “But today, if you want to write a program, you go and bring in these huge frameworks and these huge pieces of functionality that you then glue together, and you write a little code to get them to interact with each other. If you don’t understand what that big framework is doing, you’re not even going to know where your program is going to start executing.”

Consequently, a program analyzer can’t just dispense with the framework code and concentrate on the newly written code. But symbolic execution works by stepping through every instruction that a program executes for a wide range of input values. That process becomes untenable if the analyzer has to evaluate every instruction involved in adding a virtual button to a window — the positioning of the button on the screen, the movement of the button when the user scrolls down the window, the button’s change of appearance when it’s pressed, and so on.

For purposes of analysis, all that matters is what happens when the button is pressed, so that’s the only aspect of the button’s functionality that a framework model needs to capture. More precisely, the model describes only what happens when code imported from a standard programming framework returns control of a program to newly written code.

“The only thing we care about is what crosses the boundary between the application and the framework,” says Xiaokang Qiu, a postdoc in Solar-Lezama’s lab and a co-author on the new paper. “The framework itself is like a black box that we want to abstract away.”

To generate their model, the researchers ran a suite of tutorials designed to teach novices how to program in Java. Their system automatically tracked the interactions between the tutorial code and the framework code that the tutorials imported.

“The nice thing about tutorials is that they’re designed to help people understand how the framework works, so they’re also a good way to teach the synthesizer how the framework works,” Solar-Lezama says. “The problem is that if I just show you a trace of what my program did, there’s an infinite set of programs that could behave like that trace.”

To winnow down that set of possibilities, the researchers’ system tries to fit the program traces to a set of standard software “design patterns.” First proposed in the late 1970s and popularized in a 1995 book called “Design Patterns,” design patterns are based on the idea that most problems in software engineering fit into just a few categories, and their solutions have just a few general shapes.

Computer scientists have identified roughly 20 design patterns that describe communication between different components of a computer program. Solar-Lezama, Qiu, and their Maryland colleagues — Jinseong Jeon, Jonathan Fetter-Degges, and Jeffrey Foster — built four such patterns into their new system, which they call Pasket, for “pattern sketcher.” For any given group of program traces, Pasket tries to fit it to each of the design patterns, selecting only the one that works best.

Because a given design pattern needs to describe solutions to a huge range of problems that vary in their particulars, in the computer science literature, they’re described in very general terms. Fortunately, Solar-Lezama has spent much of his career developing a system, called Sketch, that takes general descriptions of program functionality and fills in the low-level computational details. Sketch is the basis of most of his group’s originalresearch, and it’s what reconciles design patterns and program traces in Pasket.

“The availability of models for frameworks such as Swing [Java’s library of graphical-user-interface components] and Android is critical for enabling symbolic execution of applications built using these frameworks,” says Rajiv Gupta, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California at Riverside. “At present, framework models are developed and maintained manually. This work offers a compelling demonstration of how far synthesis technology has advanced. The scalability of Pasket is impressive — in a few minutes, it synthesized nearly 2,700 lines of code. Moreover, the generated models compare favorably with manually created ones.”