Imagine a computer that can run every computation it needs to at once, and can think like a human—or faster. That is the promise of quantum computing.
Until recently, the technology was still sci-fi; now it’s moving fast into reality. In the last two years alone, it has reached the hands of researchers and coders, landed in the radar of industry and government and spawned a growing community of startups working to apply the technology to everything from medical diagnostics and drug trials to judging financial risk and connecting artificial intelligence applications.
In the last two years alone, quantum computing has moved into the cloud, and into the hands of enough people to get in the radar of industry and government. In late September 2018, the White House hosted a summit of tech industry and government officers, tasked with “advancing American leadership in quantum information science.”
Quantum computing “is not a lab experiment”IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, at the Consumer Electronics Show 2019
“We’re not a decade away. We’re two, five years away” from wide adoption of quantum, Rometty said.
This January, IBM showed the first commercial quantum computing system available for businesses at the Consumer Electronics Show. Over the last year, all the major technology gatherings—CES, South by Southwest, and Techcrunch Disrupt, among others—have looked at the coming of quantum and pronounced it near.
“I’m telling you: It’s coming, and it’s coming faster than people think,” said Tommy Moffat, TKS Activator at The Knowledge Society (TKS), a Canadian tech incubator. The 18-year-old quantum expert spoke at SXSW on the promise of quantum computing and its exponentially faster speed of development.
“It’s almost mind-boggling, the progress we have made in a single year,” he said. Quantum computing power has doubled over half a dozen times in 20 years and researchers are now thinking of ways to interconnect, so they can take advantage of each other’s progress, rather than keep moving forward independently, he said.
Spinning Coins and Mazes
Not everything can be modeled today, said Rometty. For example, she noted to model a molecule of caffeine would take a computer that is one-tenth the volume of Earth, but quantum computing can take on that sort of molecular-level modeling, to study entire catalogs of existing drugs and find new treatments for diseases, for example.
Quantum computing derives its power by using the principles of quantum physics to manipulate quantum bits, or qubits, instead of the binary bits made up of zeros and ones used in traditional computers. The qubits are to binary bits as a spinning coin is to a coin toss: while the toss can either be heads or tails, the quantum principle of superimposition lets a spinning coin be partly both.
In a way, a spinning the coin is a superposition of heads and tails—the state of a quantum bit, explained Dario Gil, IBM’s head of research. Following the quantum principle of entanglement, two spinning coins would be meshed. Lastly, the principle of interference allows the user to interfere with the quantum bits’ states. The code that results from that interference can make the machine reach the desired computation.
A quantum computer can solve a maze by running all the possible paths simultaneously, instead of running each possibility sequentially like a binary computer, said Moffat. Testing pharmaceutical products now takes decades of research and millions of dollars to discover one drug, much like going down every different path in a maze, he explained.
Using quantum computing, researchers could review all possible pharmaceutical drugs available and find a cure for a disease they weren’t even thinking about, said Moffat. He added he is already working with Rigetti Computing, a provider of quantum cloud services, on molecular simulations, the first step in discovering drugs.
“An Inflection Point in the Field”
Quantum computers are expensive and elaborate because they require a refrigerated chamber where the particles and the quantum processor are kept 100 times colder than outer space. The particles perform operations inside the chamber and the results are transmitted to a reader outside.
Major tech companies such as Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon Web Services are all moving quantum computing to the cloud. Meanwhile, even as the field is experiencing shortages of talent that could slow down development, a number of startup companies are racing to adapt quantum computing for business uses. Moffat noted that one Canadian startup, Xanadu is developing light-based quantum computing that will eliminate the need for refrigeration, possibly making it portable.
IBM put quantum computational ability on the cloud in May 2016, said Gil. Since then, a community has emerged to program and code those systems and more than 106,000 users in 168 countries have run 6.7 million experiments exploring applications of quantum in medicine, financial risk management, and more, he said.
The new Q system IBM launched at CES is optimized against the Qiskit open-source quantum software and supported by the IBM Q Network, an instrument last last December to get the world quantum-ready by learning to program the systems and exploring use cases. Over 42 institutions have joined since, said Gil.
“It’s a really proud moment, and I think an inflection point in the field”Dario Gil, IBM head of research
“We need a paradigm shift, and that’s where quantum comes in,” said Vijay Swarup, VP research and development at Exxon Mobil. The oil company was the first energy company to join IBM’s quantum network, looking for new energy solutions, including optimizing the power grid and improving refining processes.
As an example, Swarup noted scaling carbon capture to reduce emissions causing climate change requires a material that can be efficient enough to do it at scale. Making molecular models that are more accurate will make efforts viable, he explained.
Today’s technology is not capable of tackling today’s problems, said Moffatt. NASA had less computational ability in its early days that most iPhones have today, but the world’s most powerful supercomputer “which takes up as much power as a small city” takes almost a year to simulate a single day of human brain activity, he said.
“We still need a step above the most powerful supercomputers in the world,” he said. “That technology exists right now in the form of quantum computation.”