A (possible) intriguing breakthrough by Google may push the entire quantum computing industry forward. In recent weeks, it seems that the quantum computing industry is gaining more and more momentum. From Google to IBM — quantum is the word on everybody’s lips, not just here at Grove’s office. In fact, it seems like there is somewhat of a scientific war going on at this very moment between tech titans on this matter: After it was recently claimed that Google has managed to achieve a quantum computing breakthrough, IBM scientists quickly pushed back by posting a response urging the community to treat this statement with a large dose of skepticism. The development of quantum computers, a new type of computers able to perform calculations and simulations that are out of reach for classical computers, will obviously be a major leap forward for the quantum computing industry, and is set to dramatically influence governments and citizens alike. Whether we think that Google indeed has the upper hand or rather agree with the IBM team, one thing is for sure: when tech titans are fighting, it’s usually for a cause worth fighting for. The buzz and increasing interest in this fascinating subject will bring more attention and continue to push the boundaries of quantum computing. In this blogpost, I’d like to overview the quantum computing industry and explain how recent milestones may bring the industry to a point of readiness for further significant investments and exciting innovations.
So, What’s Quantum Computing?In a nutshell, quantum computing is the area of study focused on developing computer technology based on the principles of quantum theory (which explains the nature and behaviour of energy and matter on the quantum level). As opposed to traditional computers we are widely familiar with, this new type of computers will rely on new representations of computational memory, enabling them to hold a superposition of possible classical states of memory usage at the same time. The difference in architecture can be explained as follows: Classical computers are systems where problems are abstracted onto a system of two-position switches called bits (ones and zeros) that interact through logic-based rules. Quantum computers are instead based on qubits (quantum bits), that can represent any combination of such two positions (superposition) and interact via rules that subatomic particles follow: quantum mechanics. A quantum computer’s enormous processing power, allowed by its ability to be in a superposition of multiple states and perform tasks using all possible permutations simultaneously, will result in performance gains in the billion-fold realm and beyond. Theoretically, for example, complicated encryption protocols that secure our transactions online (that currently cannot be cracked by a classical computer in a reasonable amount of time), may be cracked by a quantum computer, easily and fast. And if you’re yet to be amazed, just imagine how fast would a quantum computer be able to model molecules and the implications it can have on chemical and biological research.
Towards Building a Quantum ComputerExperimental efforts towards building a quantum computer began after the fault-tolerance threshold theorems proved that quantum computation could be efficiently corrected against noise models. Notable experiments have been performed in nuclear magnetic resonance, superconducting systems, ion-traps and photonic systems. Studies of quantum state manipulation may help lead to the forming a quantum computer. Amongst the abovementioned methods, the two leading approaches at the moment seem to be ion-traps (a combination of electric or magnetic fields used to capture charged particles) and superconducting circuits (an implementation of a quantum computer in superconducting electronic circuits). With an increasing amount of investment in quantum computing by major industry players and governments — we are currently in the midst of a race towards building powerful and error-free quantum devices as well as obtaining quantum supremacy: proving that quantum computational machines have an advantage in solving problems that classical computers practically cannot.
Has the Age of Quantum Computing Begun with a Leak?Google, as well as IBM, Intel, Microsoft and other large tech companies and startups, have been working in recent years to build quantum computers. Centres of research in quantum computing include MIT, Oxford University and the United States Department of Defense’s agency DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). And now, some claim that the race to obtain quantum supremacy might soon be decided, or at least that we will soon start to see the first instances and evidence towards making what many believe is merely a dream — a reality:
- A few weeks ago, The Financial Times was first to catch a Google and NASA Ames Research Center employee’s paper, which claimed that the company has been able to reach the major milestone in the field of achieving quantum supremacy. The paper, titled “Quantum Supremacy Using a Programmable Superconducting Processor” was uploaded to the publicly accessible NASA NTRS website, but mysteriously removed soon-after (or perhaps, not so mysteriously, but rather intentionally, to create a greater PR effect?). Blogger Keith Cowing was able to locate and post a Googled cached version of the paper, which states: “While our computer takes about 200 seconds to sample one instance of the quantum circuit 1 million times, a state-of-the-art supercomputer would require approximately 10,000 years to perform the equivalent task”. Definitely sounds very promising.On October 23rd the final version of the piece was uploaded to Nature.
- An immediate response to Google’s publication came from the rivals at IBM, which stated that the threshold for quantum supremacy has not been met by the Google team. They finished their post with a call for quantum computing pioneers to run their first program on a “real quantum computer”, referring to their own. Indeed, Google is not the only company with major news on quantum computing news. In September, TechCrunch reported the IBM is also pushing forward and that the company is set to launch a 53-qubit quantum computer, available for external use by clients of the IBM Q Network.
- Also serious about its quantum efforts is D-Wave, which arstechnica reported in late September has announced its next generation of quantum annealer, called Advantage. D-Wave’s approach is different than the ones of Google, Intel and IBM. Their quantum annealer is more limited in the types of problems it can solve, but its design allows the number of qubits to scale up more easily and limits the impact of noise.While experts agree that it’s hard to determine when exactly the revolution of quantum computers is going to happen — some believe that we are going to see the first few applications within the next few years. These assessments, combined with above mentioned news items from recent weeks, makes me believe that the age of a quantum computer may be closer than imagined.