The race for quantum computing, explained

Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 27, 2022
Heard on:
A wafer with photonic chips for quantum computing. Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images

The race for quantum computing, explained

Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 27, 2022
Heard on:
A wafer with photonic chips for quantum computing. Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images

About an hour north of Manhattan, at IBM’s headquarters for research, an employee walks up to a glass door, bends down, and stares into a camera lens to open it with his eyeball.  

We enter a black room with a glass cube the size of a jeep.

“This is a real life quantum computer,” says Scott Crowder, IBM’s vice president for quantum adoption.   

In the center of it, hanging from the ceiling, is a shiny metallic cylinder about the size of an oil drum.

 “That shiny thing that you see is where we keep our quantum processor. It has to be really, really, really, really cold,” he says. “Like 100 times colder than outer space.”

There’s a hum in the background as pumps create vacuums inside the computer to help it get cosmically cold. It’s at such a low temperature that materials start exhibiting the strange physics at the heart of what a quantum computer does.

“It can store and manipulate information in entirely new ways using the laws of quantum mechanics,” said John Martinis, a professor of physics at University of California, Santa Barbara, who worked on Google’s quantum computing program.

The laws of quantum mechanics are, as Einstein called them, spooky. At the atomic level, particles can be in two states or even two places at the same time. A quantum computer harnesses that spookiness.  

“The basic idea here is that in classical computation, your data is represented by bits, which can be either zero or one, and in quantum computation, you have quantum bits or qubits. And that can be a mixture of zero and one at the same time,” explained Martinis.

There is much more to it than that, but the point is this could allow quantum computers to do types of calculations that traditional computers are not good at, said Martinis, “much, much faster than any supercomputer.” Martinis was involved in the breakthrough experiment in 2019 that demonstrated what’s called quantum supremacy, where Google said its quantum computer was the first to do a computation that would be near impossible for a conventional computer. A group of Chinese scientists later showed ordinary computers could, in a way, take on the task, too.

The hope is not that quantum computers would be faster or better for every problem, but rather for particular, complex problems.

“Simulating nature, so things like new drug discovery, new materials development,” said Crowder. Mercedes Benz wants to use it to better understand chaotic battery chemistry, for example. 

Quantum computers could be able to help find patterns in complex data, said Crowder, “so that has applications in things like artificial intelligence and machine learning.” In a sea of bank transactions, which ones are fraudulent?

They might also excel in what’s known as optimization. When a problem has a million options — say, for example, a million different ways to lay out factory floors — which one is the most efficient?  “So I can think of like in finance, like portfolio optimization,” Crowder said.

There could of course be other uses not yet imagined. 

But the thing that caught the attention of national security officials around the world is that quantum computing could one day break the encryption that protects just about everything on the internet — from your bank passwords to private messages, said Greg Allen, a senior fellow at the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“China’s strategy is to intercept and download a lot of encrypted data now with the anticipation that sometime in the next decade or two decades they will have sufficiently powerful quantum computers to break that encryption,” he said. The U.S. is now in the process of developing quantum resistant encryption

With all of this potential for both chaos and progress, the investment money is pouring in.

“We predict by 2027 over $16.4 billion will be invested into quantum computing,” said Heather West, a research manager at IDC. “And that’ll be private investments, it’ll be research and development investments, it’ll be government investments.”

There are now at least 89 quantum computing startups in the United States alone.

“There is a tsunami of hype about what quantum computers are going to revolutionize,” said Scott Aaronson, a professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. “Quantum computing has turned into a word that venture capitalists or people seeking government funding will sprinkle on anything because it sounds good.”

Aaronson warned we can’t be certain that these computers will in fact revolutionize machine learning and finance and optimization problems.  “We can’t prove that there’s not a quantum algorithm that solves all these problems super fast but we can’t even prove there’s not an algorithm for a conventional computer that does it,” he said.

Back at IBM, Scott Crowder was well aware of the risk of overpromising what quantum computers can do. 

“Quantum computers are not big enough or good enough yet to replace classical or do something you can’t do on a classical computers yet,” he said. “That’s why we say this is exactly what we need to do and deliver year by year in order to get there.”

IBM has published a roadmap of how it intends to scale up its quantum computers.

There are hundreds of research institutions and private companies and universities connecting with quantum computers in development. IBM has 190 partners exploring their technology.  

“We have open access, which means basically free access to people to explore the technology and understand it, we have over 400,000 people who have registered to use that open cloud access,” Crowder said. 

Chinese tech giant Baidu has developed a quantum computer it calls Qian Shi, and allows people to interact with its quantum chips via an app.

For right now though, while the technology develops, the main thing people are using quantum computing for is figuring out how they might use quantum computing. 

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