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Scientists in Japan have made a breakthrough in the quest to develop a quantum computer — a still largely hypothetical device that would be dramatically more powerful than today’s supercomputers — electronics giant NEC said Thursday.

In what they claimed was a world first, researchers at NEC and the government-funded Institute of Physical and Chemical Research successfully enabled the interaction of pairs of solid-state elemental particles in a circuit. The NEC team is led by Jaw-Shen Tsai.

The interaction — known as quantum entanglement — may enable scientists to build a computer capable of calculating in milliseconds what it would take today’s supercomputers hundreds of millions of years to compute.

But the NEC team is still years, perhaps decades, away from actually developing a quantum computer, company spokesman Shinichi Kaede said.

“This is a very long-term project,” he said.

The researchers published their results in the British science journal Nature on Thursday.

Part of a quantum computer’s power would stem from its ability to make multiple calculations simultaneously. Data units in a quantum computer, unlike those in today’s machines, can exist in more than one state at a time.

Four years ago, Tsai’s team made another major step toward developing a quantum computer when they succeeded in controlling the ability of elementary particles to seemingly be in many places simultaneously, a concept known as superposition in quantum physics.

Quantum physics is the study of the behavior of subatomic particles, like electrons.

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