Quantum computers can vault far past today's systems. They could help resolve issues around health care and policy outcomes, but technologists, academia and government will need to collaborate to make them truly useful.
In 1981, renowned physicist Richard Feynman made a bold prediction that the phenomenon known as quantum mechanics could exponentially increase the processing power of computing and usher in a new age of problem-solving. Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work, said that trying to find a computer simulation of physics “seems to me to be an excellent program to follow out.” Over the next several decades, scientists did just that and quantum computing has slowly moved from a theory into reality.
Today, quantum is about to enter what many believe is its golden age, with the potential to calculate a vast number of computational problems in a fraction of a second. Once confined to high-tech labs at research universities and leading technology firms, quantum computers are beginning to tackle a range of problems that include science, health care, business and government. Still, you can’t go out and buy a quantum computer and put it in your data center — but the day when that can happen may be here sooner than some people think.
Today’s computer — referred to as “classical” computing by quantum experts — generates a stream of binary bits in the form of 1s and 0s to create everything from an email message or document to a video or audio clip. The speed at which these bits are processed can be increased using high-performance computers (HPCs) or cluster computing. But there are limits to how fast a classical computer can stream and crunch the bits.
Quantum computing works somewhat differently by using what are known as quantum bits, or qubits, which are subatomic particles that also represent 0s and 1s, but can represent different possible combinations of binary bits at the same time, a technique known as superposition. Placing a qubit into superposition is difficult, but can be done using precision lasers or microwave beams. When it happens, a qubit in superposition can process a large number of binary bits simultaneously.
Another trick that researchers have developed is something called entanglement, in which pairs of qubits are linked or entwined. While analogous to doubling the speed of a classical computer, entanglement gives quantum computers an exponential boost in power. Using specially devised algorithms, researchers can entangle a series of qubits. It is this capability that gives quantum computers the extraordinary power to process an enormous number of possible outcomes at the same time, far beyond anything capable using the fastest version of a classical computer.
By harnessing qubits, a quantum computer can tackle some major problems, ranging from the chemical reaction in a molecule to better understanding some of the mysteries around the intractable questions regarding climate change. “You can contemplate doing things that classical computers cannot do,” said Stewart Allen, chief operating officer for IonQ, a quantum computer company that was set up in 2015. “For some problems, a classical computer would require more memory than there are atoms in the universe, but quantum has the ability to tackle that kind of problem.”
IonQ was launched by its founders because they believed the days of prototyping were drawing to a close and that the ability to launch a fully functioning quantum computer was within reach, according to Allen. “We are within a couple of years of making something real, not a couple of decades,” he said.
While IonQ represents the brash, disruptive startup culture that has defined this generation of computing, the tech giants have not been idle. IBM has been researching quantum for nearly 50 years, but like IonQ, recognizes that quantum has entered a new phase.
For IBM, the new era began in 2016, when it made its quantum computer available for public use over cloud computing. “That changed the experience from a couple of people in a lab to allowing virtually anyone on the planet to have access to real quantum computers, so they could learn more,” said Scott Crowder, chief technology officer for IBM Q systems.
One of the problems that quantum could help solve has to do with certain aspects of cryptography, which have been outside the capabilities of classical computing. Other types of problems that demand huge computational effort include route optimization for airlines and financial portfolio research for banks, as well as a host of molecular-level scientific problems, according to Crowder.
As the cloud has opened up IBM’s quantum program to a new generation of users, the firm’s partnership program has been working more exclusively with select academic institutions, government laboratories and business customers for research into the behavior of matter at the molecular level, as well as into more practical problems. Crowder described these efforts as too small for any production value, but as a way for their partners to see how rapidly the technology is evolving. “It might take five years before we unlock any significant business value for them, because it takes time to develop new algorithms and new computation methods into production. But if they don’t start now, they won’t be able to leverage the technology when it’s ready.”
Microsoft is another major player in quantum computing. The software giant has been working with the technology for almost 20 years and has ramped up work on creating a stable, end-to-end system that can be integrated with cloud technology, according to Julie Love, director of Quantum Business Development at Microsoft. “We see huge potential for quantum to accelerate problem solving across a wide range of fields, from climate change and health care to new materials development,” she said.
Microsoft is working with key customers to design quantum algorithms that can run on future, scalable hardware. But reaching that goal isn’t easy, whether you are Microsoft, IBM, IonQ or any of the other companies that are working to develop a quantum computer. No scalable, commercial-grade quantum computer exists yet. The problem lies in large part with the qubits that run in the computers. They are highly sensitive to vibration or temperature change — an interaction known as “noise” — that impacts how they maintain their superposition to get the job done.
One way to protect qubits is to place them inside a deep freezer. Microsoft is building a cryogenic control system that keeps its hardware in a deep freeze that is 100 to 200 times colder than deep space, according to Love. “There are challenges to doing that,” she said. IonQ stabilizes its qubits by trapping individual atoms in electromagnetic fields inside extremely high-vacuum chambers.
Until the hardware and controls necessary to operate a computer under such conditions is scalable, quantum researchers have turned to using error-correcting algorithms to eliminate as much of the qubit noise as possible. But doing that requires a lot of classical computing horsepower. “There’s a lot of work that goes on in turning those algorithms into code and then deploying the solution into a customer’s infrastructure,” said Love.
Despite the challenges, researchers and tech firms are optimistic about the future of quantum computing. “If we stay on the rate and pace [of doubling the quantum computer’s capabilities], which we believe we can, then by the 2020s, you are going to have systems large enough to have real business value,” said Crowder. Microsoft will likely start offering quantum computing as a service, according to Love. IonQ expects to do the same.
So, what does this mean for state and local government? For the moment, Crowder sees a role at the state and local level in terms of educating students in high school, college and post-graduate programs about the importance of quantum mechanics and computing. “It’s about getting them to understand the basics of machine learning before they move on to college,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities there.”
Beyond that, Crowder thinks there will be ample opportunity to use quantum computing to help solve problems around climate change, health-care and policy outcomes. In the private sector, some European car companies have been testing quantum computing on traffic management scenarios, which could benefit large city governments down the road.
The bottom line is that quantum computing remains a heavy lift that can’t be carried by tech firms alone if the technology is to become sustainable and scalable. “We need a partnership between technology, business, academia and government to make this happen,” Crowder said.
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