It is inconceivable for the modern generation that computers once occupied entire buildings. However, even into the 1970s this was the case. Fast forward to today and we have more power in the palm of our hand than was once found in a whole street of yesterday’s machines.
Interestingly, the previous generations did not universally anticipate computers getting smaller or assuming the forms that are common today. Consider classic science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) – the computers of the future were never miniaturised.
“Quantum computing differs dramatically from the computing we are familiar with today.”
Now that we are on the cusp of the next breakthrough in computing – quantum computing – the time has come for all of us to exercise our imaginations again and ponder what kind of future these machines will usher in.
Quantum computing differs dramatically from the computing we are familiar with today. At present, computing means using a singular piece of information that can exist as either on or off (1 or 0) and is represented in bits. In quantum computing, quantum bits or qubits are used instead. These qubits utilise the ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at any given time.
As IBM explains on its website, quantum computing allows for interesting and difficult problems, which cannot be approached with existing computers, to be solved.
As an example, they use the caffeine molecule: “Consider the caffeine molecule in a cup of coffee. Surprisingly, it’s complex enough that no computer that exists or could be built would be capable of modeling caffeine and fully understanding its detailed structure and properties. This is the type of challenge quantum has the potential to tackle.”
The Dawn of the Quantum Era?
The ultimate goal of quantum computing seems to be the creation of a digital quantum computer. Science publication Nature writes, “The quantum-computing community is channelling most of its efforts towards building the ultimate machine: a digital quantum computer that tolerates noise and errors, and that in principle can be applied to any problem.”
“In theory, such a machine – which will need large processors comprising many quantum bits, or qubits – should be able to calculate faster than a conventional computer. Such capability is at least a decade away.”
Qubits, by their very nature, allow us to do a vast number of calculations at the same time. This is because a qubit can be 0 and 1 at the same time thanks to a phenomenon called superpositioning.
However, there is not just one type of qubit, there are many and, in a programmable quantum chip, whether a qubit will be 1 or 0 is dependent on the direction its electron is spinning in.
“Quantum computers have to be kept to near absolute zero temperatures. The coldest temperature on record was in Antarctica at -128.6 Fahrenheit. The world literally cannot be cold enough for these computers.”
The key problem with all of this, though, is the fact that some qubits require very low temperatures to function.
According to James Wall, founder of the Quantum Authority, “Quantum computers are cold. In fact, many quantum computers have to be kept to near absolute zero temperatures. For the non-chemists in the room, absolute zero means 0 Kelvin. Almost -460 degrees Fahrenheit! Think about it, the coldest temperature on record was in Antarctica at -128.6 Fahrenheit. The world literally cannot be cold enough for these computers.”
Quantum Cloud Forms
IBM Q is an industry-first initiative to build a commercially available universal quantum computer for both business and science. IBM made a statement of intent by announcing a 50 qubits landmark device last year, a huge step towards the building of practical quantum computers. The IBM ecosystem is comprised of companies, research labs and academic institutions.
“Most of the energy use, roughly between 240-480 kWh in a day, is for keeping the processors at [low] temperatures.”
IBM is setting up Q Network Hubs to provide access to quantum systems and expertise. While the practical uses of quantum computers are still taking shape and there are apprehensions about elements like energy use, IBM is already working to make quantum computing available. Organisations that take part in the network will have access to 20 qubit IBM Q systems.
BDJ spoke with Dr. Robert Sutor, Vice President of IBM’s quantum computing arm, to discuss the energy problem.
He explains, “Quantum processors do not require significant amounts of energy. Most of the energy use, roughly between 240-480 kWh in a day, is for keeping the processors at temperatures of 15 milliKelvin (0.015 K), or near absolute zero. This is, in part, why IBM Q systems are accessible over the cloud.”
Who’s Who of Quantum Computing
It’s not just IBM, though. There are other early movers in the quantum space as well. Microsoft has taken a scalable approach using topological qubits. The company claims that this approach can increase the life of computations and also lead to greater efficiency. “The topological qubit is a key ingredient in our scalable quantum system,” Microsoft published in a blog post.
“Different from traditional qubits, a topological qubit is built in a way that automatically protects the information it holds and processes. Due to the fragile nature of conventional qubits, this protection offers a landmark improvement in performance, providing added stability and requiring fewer qubits overall. This critical benefit makes the ability to scale possible.”
Google is also in on the action with Google AI Quantum. The company was recently in the news for Bristlecone, a 72 qubit chip which, according to Forbes, is a ‘scaled up version of a 9-qubit Google design that has failed to yield acceptable error rates for a commercially viable quantum system.’
However, Google has chartered out its plans in its AI blog. “We will continue to decrease the error rates and increase the number of qubits in quantum processors to reach the quantum supremacy frontier, and to develop quantum algorithms for useful near-term applications,” the post explains.
In 2015, Intel partnered with QuTech to fast-track developments in quantum computing. Now, Intel has already unveiled its 49 qubit superconducting quantum test chip which they are calling ‘Tangle Lake’. The chip has 108 radio frequency (RF) connectors that carry microwave signals into the chip to make the qubits work. Interestingly, these are made out of gold.
Another company is D-Wave, which claims to be the ‘world’s first quantum computing company’. It is a privately held company, and it says that it has installed more than US$50 million worth of quantum systems at customer sites.
According to the company website, “The D-Wave 2000Q system is available through sale or lease as a standalone system, or via our quantum cloud. We also provide competition-winning, quantum-inspired machine learning services, application development services, and custom fabrication of superconducting circuits.”
The D-Wave 2000Q is cooled to a temperature 180 times colder than interstellar space (0.015 Kelvin).
Impact of Quantum Computing on Security
There are differing views on whether quantum computing will have an impact on present-day encryption. However, there is something of a consensus on the fact that there will be an emergence of post-quantum cryptography. There is an urgent need to develop techniques to protect information in the quantum age. IBM has been working on ‘lattice cryptography’, which works by hiding data inside complex math problems called lattices.
“Classical systems are not under threat of quantum decryption, today,” Dr. Sutor explains. “Quantum computers able to run Grovers’ algorithm (brute force search) or Shor’s algorithm (for factoring) to the point of breaking encryption are years, even decades away. This level of quantum compute power assumes a device with tens of thousands, perhaps millions of universal fault-tolerant qubits.”
He adds, “NIST has initiated a process to solicit, evaluate and standardize one or more quantum-resistant public-key cryptographic algorithms and IBM has submitted its proposal. For example: IBM is working on lattice-based cryptography, a quantum-safe cryptography technique rooted in linear algebra.
“It provides fast, quantum-safe, fundamental primitives and allows for constructions of primitives (encryption schemes) that were previously thought impossible. Lattice-based primitives exist today, and have already been successfully plugged into certain protocols.”
A Quantum Leap Forward
The development of quantum computing could impact nearly every aspect of our life. Whether it is in the solving of complicated business or scientific problems, or the development of space travel or our understanding of the universe itself, its influence will be pervasive. Cryptography that we take for granted today may be compromised, which means that everything from credit card transactions to cryptocurrencies may be rendered obsolete.
Our communications would all be laid bare as well. Thankfully, people are working on both the quantum computing technology and the antidote to the potential problems that may arise out of its development. It will be fascinating to see if this technology also takes the same route and minaturises, so that one day our children or grandchildren may hold a quantum computer in their palms.
Dr Craig Wright addressed some of the recently raised concerns about cryptocurrency protocols not being quantum computer proof in his 2017 paper, concluding that there is “clear evidence that attacks on bitcoin using quantum computers are not viable in terms of economic costs.” Wright famously claimed to be the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, in 2015, a claim that has been widely derided online. Not that that’s stopped him.
llustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]