Quantum computing may or may not be the future

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Real work is underway to tap the potential of this inscrutable technology into reality, says Jason Walsh

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1 December 2021 | 0

Nothing fundamental has changed in computing since the 1970s. Bear with me here, I’m not saying that you should swap your iPhone for a VAX. The past decades have seen developments including the Internet, the graphical user interface, almost indescribable growth in computational power, a crash in storage costs that no one could have predicted, and a proliferation of devices that has transformed every aspect of our lives.

What I mean is that today’s computers would on a fundamental level be recognisable to users, what few there were, from the 1970s. Your laptop and desktop are descended from programmable calculators, while servers have an ancestor in mid-range minicomputers. Given the almost unbelievable developments in that time despite the lack of fundamental breakthroughs, imagine what could be done if the entire model for computing were to change. This is the promise of quantum computing.

Where ‘classical computing’, as it is now called in order to differentiate it from quantum computing, works on the basis of binary bits, ones and zeros, on and off, quantum computing promises its fundamental unit of quantum bits, of qubits, can occupy a so-called ‘superposition’ of both on and off at the same time. Needless to say, this would upend much of what we understand about computing, and lead to a hitherto unseen increase in processing power.

 

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Key applications include artificial intelligence, cryptography and simulation modelling, so it is unlikely anyone is working on a quantum smartphone. That said, key applications for the similarly room-sized giants of the 1950s were artificial intelligence, cryptography and modelling, so who can say?

The problem for us non-physicists is that we are not exactly in a great position to make judgements on the often breathless claims made on its behalf, making quantum a case of Schrodinger’s computer. In addition, announcements by commercial players often seem to jump the gun.

Confused or conflicted

Even researchers often disagree. In 2019, when an AI team at Google declared their machine had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’, meaning when a quantum computer solves a problem that would be close to impossible for a quantum computer, IBM cried foul, saying Google’s test was arbitrary and could, in fact, have been performed on a classical computer. IBM itself is heavily invested in the area, and made headlines a fortnight ago when it announced its Eagle quantum processor.

What is clear is that the area is being taken seriously: research is underway, in universities above all, but also in the commercial sector. The aforementioned IBM and Google, of course, but others known to be working in the area include Microsoft, Amazon and, of course, silicon designers Intel, AMD and Nvidia. Meanwhile, specialist companies such as IonQ and D-Wave Systems are entirely focussed on quantum and Honeywell, designers of model 316 ‘Kitchen Computer’ (which really should be a meme), has also developed a machine and is making it available to business via the cloud.

Closer to home, the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) is this week hosting the second European Quantum Technologies Conference (EQTC 21). Unfortunately held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the conference nonetheless will be an opportunity for the kind of networking that doesn’t require Ethernet cables.

Speaking in advance of the event Tommaso Calarco, chair of the European Commission-founded Quantum Community Network of the Quantum Flagship, said it would be an opportunity to share their ideas and know-how, present discoveries, and exchange theories, techniques and approaches.

“Events like EQTC 21 set the stage for further collaboration and research between academia and industry, providing quantum technologies and training professionals with highly qualified skills to be deployed for the benefit of European society,” he said.

For its part, ICHEC says quantum technology shows the potential to become a “game changer” for society.

The claims being made in the commercial sector are interesting, but quantum computing is far from ready for prime time – current quantum machines are enormous, expensive and error-prone – but more fundamental research is to be welcomed. It would be easy to dismiss the hype around quantum computing, perhaps even science fiction, as quantum mechanics is a weird-seeming discipline that often runs contrary to our lived experience, but the prospect of a new frontier in computing may well be on the horizon.

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