Computing about to take a quantum leap

In theory, quantum computers could be vastly superior to regular or “classical” computers in performing certain kinds of tasks, but it’s been hard to build one

Photo courtesy: YouTube
Photo courtesy: YouTube

Abhijit Roy

Creating breakthrough medicines in just months instead of scores of years spent in complex research, cracking the toughest computer code in just minutes, creating fool proof financial models for capital markets that analyse trends and execute trades at lightning speeds or forecasting weather with absolute precision, with marginal possibilities of error. These are no longer in the realms of distant possibilities but could turn into reality in just a couple of years, as quantum computing research progresses rapidly with the promise of workable versions being available as early as end of this year.

According to MarketWatch, the quantum computing market is projected to top $5bn by 2020, not quite the big leagues yet. It attracted $147 million in venture capital in the last three years alone, and $2.2 billion in government funding globally, according to a Deloitte analysis. Barclays and Goldman Sachs are investigating the use of quantum computing in areas such as "portfolio optimization, asset pricing, capital project budgeting and data security. From fintech, to big data, to hardware design, cybersecurity, general analysis services, information and systems modelling, biotechnology, and a host of other sectors, once quantum computing gains sufficient traction, this would unleash the next wave of disruption along with artificial intelligence.

Quantum computing has already started to generate business. D-Wave, the developers of a quantum computer, announced the sale of a state of the art quantum computing system for US$15 million to Temporal Defense Systems. Temporal Defense Systems are the first customers for the D-Wave 2000Q Quantum Computer. Previous D-Wave customers include Lockheed Martin, Google and NASA. D-Wave claims that using the quantum computer will enable the cyber security firm to perform real-time security level rating, device-to-device authentication and identify, detect and prevent threats.

Quantum computing does not just make computer run millions of times faster than the ones we use today, but they figure out entirely new ways of solving problems hitherto impossible to do with the regular machines or even supercomputers currently in use. To use a simple analogy of a person trying to get out of a maze would be to try different paths one after the other until the right exit is found. This is how our computers work now. In the quantum computing world, the machines will try all the paths at once and figure out the exit instantaneously.

Signs of quantum computing coming into mainstream is not just reflected in the work being done by IBM and Google. Tucked away amidst the companies involved in artificial intelligence and DNA editing in the MIT list of smartest companies in 2017, was a small startup, Rigetti Computing, an emerging quantum computing company, with a tiny band of passionate engineers, that is racing against the huge armies of Google and IBM to deliver the first useful quantum computers. In early June, Rigetti Computing launched Forest, the first programming and execution environment for quantum/classical computing.

Forest, based on a shared memory architecture, enables users to develop and run quantum algorithms today. Rigetti Computing is a full-stack quantum computing company, and Forest is a full-stack product. In addition to building software, the company designs and manufactures quantum chips in its recently unveiled Fab-1, the world's first commercial quantum integrated circuit fab.

The 2017 MIT list which has honoured Rigetti shows the coming of age of quantum computing which as a concept has been there since the mid fifties but is only maturing now with promises of working models to be available by the end of this year. Regular computers are based on “bits” – imagine them as little switches pointing to either a 1 or a 0. Quantum computing relies on quantum bits, or “qubits”, which can also represent a 0 or a 1. The biggest difference is that qubits can also achieve a mixed state, called a “superposition” where they are both 1 and 0 at the same time. This ambiguity – the ability to both “be” and “not be” – is key to the power of quantum computing. It is this property of 0s and 1s coexisting in the same state gives quantum computing a tremendous processing power far outstripping any machine that exists today.

In theory, quantum computers could be vastly superior to regular or “classical” computers in performing certain kinds of tasks, but it’s been hard to build one. Already a leader in this field, Google is now testing its most powerful quantum chip yet, a 20-qubit processor, which the company looks to more than double in power to 49 qubits by the end of 2017.

Google's qubit devices are built on integrated circuits and can perform calculations using the physics of quantum mechanics. Qubits (or quantum bits) are units of quantum information that can be a mix of 0 and 1 at the same time, making them better suited than classical bits for encoding large amounts of data. IBM, on May this year announced that it had constructed a 17-bit qubit prototype that will “be the basis for the first IBM Q early-access commercial systems.”

However, working with the quantum world poses challenges. For example, it’s difficult to keep a system of interconnected quantum bits, or qubits, stable enough for useful computation. Outside interference tends to push the qubits out of superposition prematurely. Microsoft, which is betting heavily on quantum computing, is working with academic institutions to address this particular challenge. It is expected that breakthroughs are now a matter of time measured in a couple of years and when that happens we would witness the next disruption that will power the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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