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The dangerous thing about being a quantum computing nerd—or aficionado, for those of us less prone to self-deprecation—is that, inevitably, an obvious question comes up. And that question is: “But what can a quantum computer do that a classical computer can’t?”
It’s a bit of a buzzkill question, to be honest. Not because quantum computing can’t do anything real-world-cool, but because our limited minds haven’t quite managed to develop algorithms that would be terribly useful for the advantages quantum effects might conceivably proffer. If this were a spiritual quandary, for instance, it would be akin to a human trying to wrap their mind around the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent deity. It’s hard because we don’t know what we don’t know.
In the very small realm of what we have currently identified as pertinent to quantum computing, quantum computers can work with a list of known algorithms at Quantum Algorithm Zoo. But that list, like another on Wikipedia, is a work in progress. One has to be comfortable delving into the realm of advanced mathematical systems—Oracles, as they’re called—which, as it turns out, is a bit of a limiting factor.
The current —and rather harsh—truth is that there aren’t really any real-world problems only solvable with a quantum computer. At least not right now. Anything we currently care about can most likely be solved on a classical computer if you give it a few million or billion years (and plenty of power). Not every computational nail needs a quantum-computing hammer. Katie Pizzolato, IBM QStart director, and William Hurley, founder and CEO of Strangeworks, a quantum computing startup in Austin, Texas, offered their thoughts on the current state of quantum computing.
We’re still in the early stages of quantum computing, and at least a few years away from being able to solve problems classical computers can’t, Pizzolato said, adding, though, that this didn’t mean people weren’t already trying. “We have more than 130 organizations representing Fortune 500 companies, academic institutions, research labs, government labs, and startups around the world experimenting with real business problems today on real quantum hardware,” she said.
The reason quantum computing continues to capture our imagination and generate so much interest is that its potential speed for solving a particular set of problems is still tremendously intriguing, even if we aren’t quite there yet. In theory, a quantum computer’s level of complexity means it could solve epic challenges across a plethora of industries, from pharmaceuticals to transport to infrastructure to finance and cybersecurity. This is because quantum computers are adept at factoring insanely large numbers and are good at solving mathematical puzzles such as the Traveling Salesman problem, which would quickly overwhelm a classical computer.
“I think the public will most likely miss all the wonder of quantum computing,” Hurley said. “They’ll be affected by it, but most likely not direct users and therefore will probably not be taken by surprise.” Hurley said a “killer app”-type algorithm for people to point to when discussing quantum computing abilities isn’t likely to be developed soon.
So, why even bother being passionate about it if it’s so hard to even come up with real-world problems to solve? Because a quantum computer can’t solve a big real-world problem doesn’t mean it can’t help in the process, Hurley said. Indeed, he believes that some of the computational complexities found in climate change and cancer research would be good candidates for exploration from a quantum computing perspective.
“While I’m not sure quantum will ‘solve’ either of them, I do think it will have a tremendous impact on the state of the art in both fields,” he said.
Pizzolato is optimistic about quantum computing’s impact on many areas of science and technology. “The ideas behind it are fundamentally innovative, and new ones are being constantly researched,” she said. Quantum researchers were incessantly “pushing the boundaries of what can be done with a quantum computer, and at the same time figuring out how it can affect the world we live in,” she said. Doing this, however, requires constant engagement with technology leaders in industries such as the financial services sector, energy, electronics, automotive, chemistry, healthcare, and airlines.
Over the next decade, Pizzolato has high hopes for things such as the simulation of new materials or drug discovery.
There are some problems for which quantum computers have a natural exponential advantage over traditional computers, such as the ones that are fundamentally quantum in nature, like quantum chemistry,” Pizzolato said. Machine learning was another good candidate for quantum computing acceleration, she said. “We expect more research to establish an edge on practical applications,” she said.
Just because the general public can’t see tangible results from quantum computing yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter for real-life problems, Hurley said. “I think we see this in the billions of dollars governments are investing in quantum computing,” he said. “It’s a much bigger deal than people may think at first glance.
The U.S. recently announced a $1 billion (USD) quantum and artificial intelligence initiative, which includes $300 million toward developing new Department of Energy labs focused on quantum computing.
Perhaps—much like Douglas Adams’ supercomputer ‘Deep Thought’ in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” whose answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” is 42—it’s not about solving for the questions we know how to ask, but asking the right questions that quantum computing can solve.
Because, do you know what a quantum computer can’t do? It can’t tell you whether it can do anything useful. And it might be for the creative among us to figure that out for ourselves.
While quantum computing may sound like a concept straight out of a sci-fi novel, many experts feel it’s simply the next inevitable step of technological progress. While Artificial Intelligence (AI) grabs all the headlines, countries are quietly funneling billions of dollars into quantum research, each hoping to emerge as the first quantum superpower.
We spoke to William Hurley (Whurley), author of Quantum Computing for Babies, a visionary in the field, who is on a mission to connect quantum hardware to the organizations who can use them.
Q. Whurley, you’ve done a lot of different things in your career, from your early days as an engineer at tech megafirms like Apple and IBM to being an entrepreneur yourself. So, why quantum?
A. People are always looking for that next “paradigm shift,” and it’s often overhyped and overblown. But in the case of quantum computing, it’s really not. In fact, calling it a paradigm shift is something of an understatement. This is very cutting-edge stuff, it’s super, super cool and it will change the world in many, many ways.
Q: First, I suppose, it would be helpful to hear you define what quantum computing is.
A: On a basic level, think about a coin toss—heads or tails on a flat surface. If it’s heads, it’s a one; if it's tails, it’s a zero. That’s how you can think of classical architecture. Quantum computing is like the coin being tossed in the air. It’s in a constant state of one, zero, or maybe both. We don’t know what it is until we stop it in our hand. The first thing you hear about quantum computing is that classical bits are dead, quantum computing will replace classical computing, and it will change the world forever. I think it may someday do those things; but for now, think of quantum computing implementations more as a GPU, a cloud processor, or a co-processor.
Q: So, what does a quantum computer look like? I’m envisioning a robotic arm flipping a coin!
A: Ha. Well, not quite. There are three types of quantum computers right now:
Even though there are a few different ways to create qubits, they all look pretty much the same—a big cylinder or in the case of the D-Wave, a cube. If you look inside a quantum computer, they all look like a big chamber with a giant chandelier inside. The bottom-most part that chandelier is the actual quantum computer. The rest of the structure is for cooling the particles down to anywhere between 5mK to 15mK.
Q: Since when has quantum computing been a thing?
A: Quantum computing has actually been around for a long time. The concept itself was coined in 1982, but it goes further back than that. In 1927 at the Solvay conference, some of the biggest physicists in the world—Schrodinger, Einstein, and Heisenberg—discussed the newly formulated quantum theory. From there, came the concept of Schrodinger’s cat, entanglement, and a bunch of other things like the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox. These concepts laid the foundation for what Feynman, Benioff, and Manin came up with in the 80s. We started seeing quantum algorithms in the 90s and the first hardware in the 00s. But in 2014, you really see a sudden uptick in terms of investments, startups, patents, and material science advantages. Right now, we’re on the precipice of it actually becoming a reality.
Q: Why now? Why the sudden urgency and effort?
A: The basis of classical computing is ones and zeros. If we block a signal, it’s a zero. If we let a signal through, it’s a one. Computers are giant abacuses, but at the same time, they are also getting very small. The smartphone you have is powered by 10nm chips with three billion transistors in it. These devices are getting so small that some scientists worry that once we get to 7nm, 5nm, and 3nm, quantum mechanics will come into effect, and we won’t be able to block signals. Quantum tunneling—where you try to block a signal, but it gets through anyway—will happen sooner or later. And when it happens, improvements in classical computing will slow down dramatically.
Q: Is that what’s meant by quantum supremacy?
A: A lot of people use the term quantum supremacy. I understand the term; but, I’m not a big fan of it because it gives the impression to people in the industry that somehow a quantum computer will replace a classical one. That’s not the case. We need the classical computer to control all of the data in and out, the cryogenics, and basically everything in the system. We take it from the classical computer, we send control information in, and then send it out again. I don’t think a quantum computer is something you run everything on because to do that in the near future, you’d need millions and millions and millions of qubits. We’ve only achieved about 72 qubits to date. So, think of a quantum computer more like a co-processor.
Q: Will it be an easy transition for today’s software and hardware engineers to factor quantum computing into the equation?
A: Well, in a classical computer you have circuits, modules, gates, and transistors. In the old days, you had to be an engineer to program a computer because you had to understand the voltage between the gates. Then, sometime later, you just had to understand the gates. Now, we have software engineers who don’t even know there are gates. So these things are typically a progression. Right now, you have to be a physicist to program a quantum computer. The goal is to take quantum computing to the place where you only have to know the gates and then have some abstraction layer so you can use it for whatever you’re doing.
Q: Which leads me to possibly the most important question, what CAN you actually do with a quantum computer?
A: Quantum computers help us to solve really big problems. Take the classic traveling salesperson example. You have a computer that does 10 to the ninth operations per second, and you want to send your salesperson to 14 cities using the shortest path there and back. It takes a classical computer about 1000 seconds to find the solution to that if one were to check all the combinations of tours. If you have to send your salesperson to 22 cities, it takes a classical computer about 1600 years to find the solution. And if you want your salesperson to go to 28 cities, it takes longer than the amount of time in the known universe for the classical computer to calculate the answer. Quantum computers can solve that problem in a reasonable amount of time.
Another great example is how quantum computing could revolutionize chemistry and scientific research. Take the caffeine molecule. There are 95 electrons in a caffeine molecule, and you can go to great extents to model it. When you think of the memory compute size you need to model a caffeine module on classical architecture, it is astronomically huge and impossible. However, you could do those same modeling on a quantum computer with 160 qubits. We’re at 72 qubits already. The rumor is that we’ll be at 150-200 by the end of the year; though granted, we still have a fidelity problem. Anyway, we could use quantum computers to solve these very big, very difficult mathematical modeling problems. It will improve search algorithms, AI, machine learning, and traffic as well as help find cures for diseases and global warming. Today, most climate studies aren’t accurate because you’re using a classical system to model a quantum mechanical world. Since nature is quantum mechanical, quantum computers would likely make better climate models that could be more accurate and give better data than the approximate guesswork we are doing today.
We want to solve all these problems now, but we don’t have the compute power. Quantum computing will take us to that compute power. I think we’ll have 1000 qubits in the next 3-5 years. The trip from 1000 to 10,000 is relatively short. Once you get to 10,000, you can start looking to millions of qubits. Do I think we’ll have millions of qubits in 5 years? No, but as the technology advances, we can use the technology to solve some of the problems and material science modeling so it accelerates it even further.
Q: Would it give a potentially unfair advantage to a country if it cracks quantum before the rest of the world?
A: A lot of countries talk about quantum computing in terms of national security, but every single quantum researcher is working with others from around the world right now. So if you want progress, you can’t lock it down. I think this should be an open-source technology. I think it should be a world-based technology—democratized as many things that affect our lives should be. There are a ton of universities worldwide working on the topic. Quantum computing, not AI, is the space race for our generation. Because there’s more money being invested, risks with encryption threats, potential to cure diseases, and capability to do things, it’s an incredibly important area.
Q: How does one get involved in quantum computing?
A: I would encourage everyone to get involved. Big companies are starting programs for developers. There are also many open-source programs. Don’t be afraid. If you’re interested in quantum computing and the future, be inspired.
In a world where technological progress is seemingly measured in increments as banal as upgrades to your cellphone’s processor, battery life and camera, simply broaching the topic of quantum computing sounds like, well, a bit of a leap. And it is.
It is no exaggeration to say that quantum computing has the potential to change not only the very paradigms of computing itself but also the world.
Unshackled from the binary, from bits-and-bytes, from this-or-that, quantum computing turns traditional computer logic inside out, allowing for scenarios where values can be either a one, a zero, both, or even somewhere in between.
This superposition is the advantage that a quantum qubit has over a regular computing bit, allowing for what is known in quantum-speak as entanglement with far more complex calculations than regular computers are capable of processing. The sheer power could entirely transform industries from biochemical engineering to finance to machine learning, material science, drug discovery, artificial intelligence, climate science, agriculture, national infrastructure, digital payments, and much more.
Something so complex, so academic, so theoretical, however, means that quantum computing has long remained in the purview of tech labs and scientists in white coats. But, with analysts now claiming the quantum-computing market is set to be worth some $9.1 billion (USD) annually by 2030, up from $111.6 million in 2018, the field is heating up and rapidly moving to mainstream commercial use.
This, of course, brings with it myriad career opportunities. But just how easy is it to work in quantum computing? Is there a demand for developers, and what scientific chops does one need? We had the experts weigh in on the state of quantum computing.
“Right now, the demand for quantum talent, primarily on the physics side of the house, is 100 percent outstripping supply,” says William Hurley, founder of quantum computing startup Strangeworks and author of “Quantum Computing for Babies.”
“If there aren’t more efforts to educate a wider audience on the topic, and we don’t have more programs in high schools and colleges around the world, then the current ‘talent drought’ will get much worse at the point where we need software developers at scale.”
Large companies such as IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are not just hiring for a plethora of quantum computing roles but are actively offering courses and training to get promising talent up to speed.
“We just ran a summer school for over 4,000 people comprising a lecture series and labs, and we put out a ton of free resources because we’re committed to doing it,” said Jay Gambetta, a physicist who is co-leading an IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center team working to build a large-scale quantum computer.
Does one have to be a physicist, though? Like so many in quantum computing, the answer is yes, no, both, and something in between.
“A degree in physics wouldn’t hurt,” Hurley says. “At a minimum, you need an above-average grasp of the quantum mechanics behind these new computers. However, I see this changing dramatically over time.”
Hurley says this was similar to how one had to be an electrical engineer to program a computer in the early days of computing before abstraction layers, development libraries, open-source projects, and communities all helped to lower the barriers to entry.
“I think it depends on the level of stack you want to get in,” says Gambetta, noting that the closer one is in the development to the hardware, the more one needs to know about quantum physics. Gambetta says he recently hired a computer scientist “who did not even have a Ph.D.,” but whose skills had been a significant contribution to the team.
“I really see programming quantum computers as a team sport,” Hurley says. “It’s my opinion that you’ll need a diversity of talent to come up with the world-changing solutions that quantum promises. Yes, part of that talent will be software developers, but you’ll still need a physicist, perhaps a discrete mathematician, and obviously a subject-matter expert.”
Indeed, looking at the job postings within the quantum computing space shows a myriad of potential roles, ranging from researchers to designers to engineers, developers, and even user-experience experts. Also, quantum computing has evolved so that one can now access its raw power over the cloud, which means you don’t have to be a lab rat to harness it. It’s real, it’s practical, and it’s becoming readily available for those who know what to do with it.
“I think it’s important to build an ecosystem,” says Gambetta, adding that the burgeoning field required “a lot more developers.” Many major firms are offering developers a way to dip their toes into quantum through development environments, and are then building infrastructure around them, forming communities.
IBM itself has IBM Q, which offers students, researchers, and general science enthusiasts “hands-on access through a human-user interface to IBM’s experimental cloud-enabled quantum computing platform.” The interface lets users run algorithms and experiments, work with quantum bits (qubits), and explore tutorials and simulations around what might be possible with quantum computing.
Amazon has Braket, its newly launched quantum computing developer sandpit to help researchers and developers get started with the technology to accelerate research and discovery. Amazon says Braket “provides a development environment for developers to explore and build quantum algorithms, test them on quantum circuit simulators, and run them on different quantum hardware technologies.”
Microsoft is also set to announce Azure Quantum, its version of the above.
Although building quantum computers themselves is hard and highly technical, a knowledge of classical computers can help in many ways. For a start, classic computers are often used to model what we would want quantum computers to do (just throw in some linear algebra packages to help things along). Similarly, classical computers can be used to run statistical inference algorithms on data churned out of quantum computers, helping researchers figure out how to improve the systems. Finally, classical computers can be used to write and test programs and applications people want to run on quantum computers. Quantum programming languages, such as Q#, are emerging to do this.
Bottom line: The industry is still in its infancy, but as the industry grows and different layers of abstraction come into play, more opportunities requiring less specialized knowledge open up.
“The one thing I learned very early on was that you can’t just take a developer and make them a quantum developer overnight,” Hurley says. However, Hurley was quick to add that for developers interested in a quantum computing career, now was the best time to get involved in a technology that he and many others believe will dramatically impact every aspect of our existence.
“Start today, stick with it, and when the quantum revolution hits, you’ll be on the front lines.”
(Source: kras99 – stock.adobe.com)
As if the internet couldn’t get any more overwhelming, we have to go and add the word “quantum” in front of it. Why?
To answer this question, I recently sat down with Aharon Brodutch, CEO of Entangled Networks, to find out what the big deal is about the Quantum Internet, or if it’s even a deal to most of the general public at all.
Aharon, so, what even IS the Quantum Internet?
Quantum information is very different from classical information. When we transmit information over the internet, it is encoded in bits. Each bit can be either 0 or 1. Quantum mechanics allows systems to be in a superposition of states. A famous hypothetical experiment called Schrodinger's Cat showed that a quantum cat can be in a superposition of "dead" and "alive". That is, it can be in a state that is neither dead nor alive, something which is inconceivable outside the quantum world. This superposition state is very difficult to maintain. Going back to the cat, although it can be in this strange superposition state, when we try to observe it, we will destroy the superposition and see either a dead or a living cat. Similar to the cat, a quantum bit (qubit) can be in a superposition of 0 and 1, allowing a wide range of interesting applications. But again, like the cat, the superposition is very fragile, and all the quantum properties can be lost abruptly if the system is disturbed.
A quantum network is a network that allows quantum information to be transmitted between quantum nodes. These can be quantum computers, quantum sensors, or quantum cryptography modules. Small quantum networks are important for linking quantum computers and getting them to work together, similar to supercomputers. A quantum internet is a large quantum network that allows multiple users across the world to send quantum information from quantum nodes like quantum computers, quantum sensors, and quantum cryptography modules.
Right, so what I understand is that it’s not for sending cat memes to one another. Even Schrodinger’s Cat memes. Tell me then, what is it useful for?
The most prominent use cases for a quantum internet are centered around data security. The fact that the quantum system can exist in superposition (think of the cat that is neither dead nor alive) but cannot be observed in superposition (when we look at the cat, it is either dead or alive) makes it a great tool for data security. The simplest application in cryptography is distributing a secure key that can be used to encrypt information. A more interesting application is private computation where a user can run a program on a computer in the cloud without anyone else—including the computer—knowing what they are running. This is an incredibly important security paradigm in a world that is increasingly switching to cloud computing. Imagine being able to use Gmail without needing to trust Google to secure your information.
A second use case is sensing. Quantum sensors can be significantly more sensitive than classical sensors. Again, this is due to the ability to maintain a superposition. A quantum internet will allow multiple sensors to work together by having a shared state that can be in a superposition. This would enable unique situations like having a network of sensors across the globe act as if they were a single giant device. And if that were not enough, the security alluded to above would be a free feature that can be used to hide the information collected from unwanted eyes.
So, if you’re a digital sensor or you have major digital trust issues, QI might be for you! How else will it meaningfully change user experience?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Imagine asking what a worldwide network would be used for in the late 60s when ARPANET was being developed. Current use cases (like the ones we just discussed) are focused on power users such as government and large enterprises who need to protect data and use extremely accurate sensors.
From their perspective, the development would be an extension of existing developments in both security and sensing. The one exception is the ability to securely use quantum computers over the cloud. Quantum computers offer game-changing abilities to perform certain computations, but are expected to be expensive to build and maintain. The ability to use them securely but keep them in a centralized location would allow a much wider user base and offer immense computational resources.
Looking further into the future, a quantum internet in every home would allow an extreme level of security and anonymity. Again, imagine using Google without Google knowing who you are or what you are doing. The potential—both positive and negative—is immense.
So, we’ll finally be able to claw some anonymity back from the all-seeing, all-knowing tech behemoths, if we’re savvy enough. But not everyone will be savvy enough, I imagine, so there’ll probably be systems built to leverage it invisibly. Will people actually know if they're using it?
At the moment, anyone using any kind of quantum technology is very aware that they are using this technology. However, the dream from a developer's perspective is to make the user's experience as simple as possible. Usually, you are not aware if someone upgraded the security features on your computer or if your internet provider has upgraded the network. You might notice things are running faster, but you might not even know why. This is even true of the pinnacle of quantum technology, quantum computers. As a user, you might realize that you are able to run some programs that were simply impossible before, but you would not need to know why this is happening. Think as an example of the technologies required to allow streaming Netflix on your phone. Most users are unaware of the nature of the technological breakthrough; they just know that it works and perhaps realize their phone bill has changed.
Ok, but here’s a big one. There’s so much talk about quantum things, and has been for so long, but the reality seems to be hitting all kinds of walls. So, tell us, is the Quantum Internet actually possible?
Yes. There are many challenges associated with a quantum internet, but the underlying concepts are based on fundamental quantum mechanics, our most tested physical theory. If we find a reason that would make the Quantum Internet impossible, it would be the greatest scientific breakthrough of the last 100 years.
Good to know! I’m glad things seem to be progressing. Could you tell us more about who is building the Quantum Internet and how far along are we in that process?
Quantum communication has been studied as an academic discipline for the last 50 years, with a huge boost in the 21st century. However, it was—and still mostly is—in the realm of physicists and theoretical computer scientists. Over the last few years, there has been a shift toward industry, and some thought is being given to engineering. One particular reason this area is not as active (in industry) as quantum computing is that the most important use cases of a quantum internet would require some of the nodes to be quantum computers.
Recent US government initiatives have led to some work in industry, including a few startups that specialize in building quantum networking equipment. This is supplemented by various startups as well as large multinationals that are working on quantum cryptography. Demonstrations of quantum networks over long distances include networks across various cities as well as quantum communication with satellites.
Work on quantum computing—an emerging but fast-growing industry—is important to quantum networking. Most of the existing efforts in building quantum computers will require a networked architecture: many small quantum computers working together over a (local) quantum network. This is very similar to HPCs, which are built of many compute nodes (each node is a computer). While the networks required for quantum computers are different from a quantum internet, the basic building blocks are the same. Most quantum computing companies are either thinking or actively working on quantum networking. Over the last two years, a few quantum networking startups (e.g., Entangled Networks) have focused on the networking aspects of "multi-core" quantum computation.
I’m so impatient! How far are we from the Quantum Internet being a reality?
A fully fledged (worldwide) quantum internet is still a dream, and it is difficult to predict when all the necessary ingredients will be ready for deployment. However, the need for quantum networking as a part of the intense efforts in building quantum computers is driving this dream closer to reality. This comes together with the very real need to protect data and the relative maturity of point-to-point quantum cryptography. Current industry timelines show a need for networked "multi-core" quantum computers sometime in the middle of this decade (see for example IBM's recent roadmap). These timelines suggest that the necessary components for a quantum internet will be ready before the end of the decade. It is then mostly a question of the maturity of use cases beyond cryptography and the need for quantum cryptography over a quantum internet that will drive industry and/or government in the direction of a quantum internet.
It’s not exactly cheap as chips to build a quantum computer today. Indeed, they’re currently pretty pricey machines that are only being built and operated by a few key players. As quantum computing gains buzz and attention, however, and as smaller companies start getting involved, some believe quantum computing might eventually see the same commoditization as classical computers before them. Investors in the space, however, disagree.
Quantum computers are popular with the tech press owing to their potential to solve problems of incredible complexity across a plethora of industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to finance, climate change to cancer, chemical compounds to cybersecurity.
While classical computers use bits—ones and zeros—quantum computers use qubits that work on a principle of superposition, which means they can be zeros, ones, both or neither at the same time, giving rise to far more potential answers because multiple calculations are happening simultaneously with multiple inputs.
The promise of quantum computing is that once the right number of qubits has been achieved, cracking these answers could come down to a few mere hours of compute time—a clearly tantalizing proposition. The problem, though, is that qubits are still fairly unstable and even the most advanced companies in the quantum computing space are still hovering around the 50 qubit mark, whereas experts believe it will take hundreds, if not thousands of qubits to really bring quantum computing to useful fruition. McKinsey, in its “A Game Plan for Quantum Computing” report notes “many companies and businesses won’t be able to reap significant value from quantum computing for a decade or more, although a few will see gains in the next five years.”
“Since the technology is nascent, progress may be slow: our estimate is that by 2030 only 2,000 to 5,000 quantum computers will be operational. Since there are many pieces to the quantum computing puzzle, the hardware and software needed to handle the most complex problems may not exist until 2035 or beyond,” continues the report.
This hasn’t dissuaded investors or startups one, er, qubit.
“Quantum computing has the potential to change the world in ways no other computing technology has. Given its potential, I’d like to see it in as many hands as possible,” said William Hurley, co-founder of Quantum Computing startup Strangeworks. Hurley is also of the opinion that Quantum Computing will see commoditization eventually, just like classical hardware and data centers before them.
“When any revolutionary new technology is introduced it carries a premium price. As adoption spreads and more competitors enter the market prices generally fall. This is a cycle we've seen for decades. I don’t think quantum computing hardware can break this trend. These machines will start off being very costly, and end up dropping to thousands of dollars an hour, then hundreds, and then finally being sold at prices similar to those of GPUs or TPUs today.”
Indeed, it could be argued that the industry is already seeing some form of commoditization take root as ever more hardware vendors enter the market, while major players like Amazon Web Services (and soon Microsoft) fractionalize machine time while driving the prices of access to some machines virtually to under $1 a task.
Tomer Diari of Bessemer Venture Partners disagrees. “Commoditization of Quantum Computing hardware? Honestly, I do not see that happening. I think that we are going to see the exact opposite. We are going to see what is currently a very wide race among a couple dozen vendors trying to build a Quantum processor narrowing down and consolidating into the hands of perhaps three, four, five or six credible vendors working on this challenge.”
Diari believes that, at the end of the day, these few companies alone will control the technology, and the hardware stack, and will therefore be able to dictate the terms for at least the next decade or so.
Jay Gambetta of IBM agrees with Diari. “I do not see it getting commoditized in the near foreseeable future because of the dependence on the hardware,” he explained adding that it would likely never be comparable to a laptop or even a data center, and that building software for Quantum Computing was no trivial task and would require many layers of abstraction. “These are going to be specially-built machines for solving certain problems, and there’s not a lot of room for commodifying that. You’re not going to be checking your email on it.”
Investors seem to be in agreement and have been dropping large down rounds on some of the more promising quantum computing startups, as well as increasing their investments in larger, more established players in the industry.
That said, investing in quantum computing is far from a no-brainer. “It is really difficult to push an investment opportunity in a company building technology that you cannot even grasp and quantum computing is a technology that is incredibly difficult to get your mind around. It’s also very difficult to tell what sort of modality is going to prevail. What is the right way forward? How do you even Benchmark companies against each other when they are all currently developing very different technology stacks?” mused Diari. “It is almost like it must have been for semiconductor investors before semiconductors were a thing.”
While it may be tempting to invest in the software part of the stack, Diari said this approach had some problems because at the end of the day, only a handful of vendors would have the resources and ability to build the hardware, and it would be only those companies that would end up determining the entire stack, thus making investing in software layers prematurely a risky endeavor. “At the end of the day, those few companies will control the technology, they will control the stack and they are going to dictate the terms of this industry for at least the next decade or so.”
Hurley agrees that investors should be taking a long-term view on quantum computing investment. “Time is absolutely the most important thing. Most venture funds run for 10 years. If you’re at the very beginning of that quantum may not be the right investment for you. This isn’t a sprint, and it’s not a marathon, it’s an ultra-marathon and investors should be taking a long term view on any investments they make in the space,” he said.
Meanwhile, as several quantum computing players punt their offerings via the cloud, adoption and demand is set to increase, with many projecting that, at least for now, those wanting to experiment in the quantum sandbox may opt for a hybrid approach, coupling classical computing with a kick from quantum. Will that lead to commoditization down the line? Maybe or maybe not. But as Hurley points out, “commoditization would be good for consumers.”
(Source: Ozz Design/Shutterstock.com)
Quantum technologies are an area, once manifested, that could change the face of many technology-based applications. Although quantum technologies are not quite there yet, scientists have already managed to create devices that can transmit data using quantum networks, albeit for a matter of nanoseconds at low temperatures. Nevertheless, gains are being made—with semiconductors currently leading the way as the fundamental building blocks—and if you look at the huge advances made in classical computing technologies over the past few decades, then quantum technologies might not be as far away as many think.
Quantum technology will be valuable for many reasons, especially for anything that uses a computer chip, as it will enable more operations to be performed simultaneously—and at a greater speed than modern-day computers—while providing an extra layer of encryption that is much needed in today’s online world.
Behind any quantum technology is the quantum bit—otherwise known as a qubit—and is similar, yet so very different, to a classic computing bit. Qubits are the building blocks of quantum networks, much like classical bits are in classical networks. Classical computing bits—known to many as binary bits– can take one of two forms. These are a 1 and 0. Qubits can also take the form of a 1 or 0, but there is a third form that is not possible with classical bits, and that is a superimposable form that can take the form of either a 1 or a 0. Because the superimposable form can take either form, operations can be performed in both values simultaneously—something not possible with classical networks. It is one of the fundamental reasons why quantum networks will be able to process multiple operations at much higher speeds than classical networks.
Figure 1: Qubits, the building blocks of quantum networks, can come in three forms and possess infinite value. (Source: Production Perig/Shutterstock.com)
Each qubit can possess an infinite value within each of the three forms. This leads to a continuum of states where each qubit becomes one and indistinguishable from each other. Although the individual qubit uses the spin of electrons and polarization of photons to store data, they can become entangled, which makes them act as a unified system. This means that each quantum network is described and used as a complete system, rather than a series of qubits.
Quantum entanglement is an important phenomenon in quantum networks. Electrons, photons, atoms, and molecules can all become entangled in these networks. The entanglement within a quantum network also extends over long distances. When one part of the quantum network is measured, the properties of the corresponding entangled qubit(s) within that specific network can be deduced as a definitive value. This enables many networks to be built up, all of which have different values and properties, but where all the qubits in a single network share the same information.
Quantum teleportation is another phenomenon that enables quantum technologies to function, and is similar in nature to quantum entanglement. Quantum teleportation is the process where the data and/or information held in the qubit—which is held there by the electrons spinning up or down, and by polarizing the photons in a vertical or horizontal orientation—is transported from one location to another without transporting the qubit itself.
Most qubits become entangled in these networks; however, if doubt exists that they haven’t become entangled, they can be tested using coincidence correlation. Coincidence correlation assumes that an entangled network can only emit one photon at a time. You can use multiple photodetectors to see how many photons are emitted by a single network. If more than one photon is recorded at any one time, then you can assume that the quantum network is not a single-photon system, and therefore not entangled.
The materials that make up the qubits are an essential part of establishing a quantum network. The quantum system is formed by manipulating physical materials, so the properties and characteristics of the materials used to build a quantum network is a major consideration. For any material to be considered as the building block of a quantum technology, it needs to possess long-lived spin states, which it can control, and be able to operate parallel qubit networks.
Many physical parts also go into designing a quantum network. One of the key features the quantum system requires is an arrangement of interconnected communication lines between each network. Just like in classical computing, these communication lines run between end nodes. These nodes are representative of the information held within an individual quantum network, and this becomes more important for larger and/or complex quantum networks where a lot of different types of information are held within the quantum system. These end nodes can take many forms, although the most popular choices at the moment are:
Two other physical components are crucial if a quantum network is to function as it should. These are the communication lines and quantum repeaters. The physical communication lines currently take two main forms, which are fiber-optic networks and free-space networks, and both work differently. Physical communication lines made from fiber-optic cables send a single photon by attenuating a telecommunication laser, and the path of the photon is controlled by a series of interferometers and beam splitters before it is detected and received by a photodetector. Free-space networks, on the other hand, rely on the line of sight between both ends of the communication pathway. As it stands, both can be used over long distances, but free-space networks suffer from less interference, have higher transmission rates, and are faster than fiber-optic networks.
The other important component is the repeater, which ensures that the quantum network does not lose its signal or become compromised because of decoherence—which is the loss of information due to environmental noise. It is a straight-forward process in classical networks, because an amplifier simply boosts the signal. For quantum networks, it is much trickier. Quantum networks need to employ a series of trusted repeaters, quantum repeaters, error correctors, and entanglement purifying mechanisms to test the infrastructure, to keep the qubits entangled, to detect any short-range communication errors, and to minimize the degree of decoherence in the network.
An extra layer of security can be incorporated into quantum networks through quantum key distribution, which utilizes the principles of quantum mechanics to perform cryptographic operations. This will be a particularly useful tool for when two people are communicating via a quantum network, or data is being transmitted from location to another. The encryption process will utilize randomly polarized photons to transmit a random number sequence. These sequences then act as keys in the cryptographic system. The theory behind these cryptographic systems is that they will use two networks—a classical channel and a quantum channel—between two different communication points, where both channels play specific roles. The classical channel is there to perform classical operations and is a way of seeing if anyone is trying to hack into the network. However, the qubits containing the data will be sent over the quantum channel, which means that the classical system can be hacked, but the hackers will not obtain any information—as no information would exist in that channel. The way that these systems will be able to tell if a network has been hacked is down to the correlation of the signal. Classical networks are highly correlated, and if any imperfections occur between the source and the receiver in the channel, then the system will know if a hack has been attempted.
Although the realization of quantum technologies in everyday systems might be a while off yet, the potential is there for these technologies to revolutionize the computing and communication spaces. The ability for quantum networks to become one and be transmitted over long distances has many advantages over classical systems, which include the potential for faster data transmission types, the ability to perform multiple operations simultaneously, and for highly encrypted data communication channels.
(Source: Yurchanka Siarhei/Shutterstock.com)
“In or out!” my mom would scream at me when I was growing up. “Make up your mind and decide if you are going outside or coming inside. You are wasting energy standing in the doorway,” she’d bellow.
I am not sure whether my mom knew much about the coming digital age, a world that was to be transformed by the power of the binary digit (bit). But maybe she knew more about technology than she led on in my childhood years.
I wonder whether my mom knew that bits are characterized as a two-stage (0, 1) mathematical representation analogous to opposite binary states such as ON/OFF, HIGH/LOW, IN/OUT. Bits allowed classical computers to take center stage in the digital revolution.
But a new revolution is underway–a computational breakthrough well beyond the current boundaries imposed by a binary system. This computing revolution is quantum computing, which replaces bits with quantum bits (qubits) (Figure 1). Qubits, through a phenomenon known as quantum superposition, can be in two states at the same time–which reminds me of my mother’s directive of being either in or out.
Quantum superposition allows quantum computers to process vast amounts of data simultaneously in a single operation—a task that could take a classical computer thousands of years to accomplish.
Figure 1: The image illustrâtes how a qubit occupies two states at one time. (Source: Astibuag/Shutterstock.com)
Qubit manipulation is the mechanism that carries out quantum computing operations. RF connectors, adapters, and cable assemblies are used in quantum computing to transmit signals that manipulate the state of qubits. Specific interconnect features required include the ability to withstand cryogenic (very low) temperatures, non-magnetic, high-frequency, and low loss.
Amphenol RF leads the way in addressing this new market. Amphenol RF, a division of Amphenol Corporation, is the world's largest manufacturer of coaxial interconnect products for radio frequency (RF), microwave, and data-transmission applications. As a leader in enabling next-generation technology, Amphenol RF continually supports global advancements in connectivity. Whether it is high-frequency coaxial connectors and wiring harnesses for high-isolation delivery of electromagnetic control signals, microwave connectivity solutions, and connectors. Amphenol RF is connecting the way for quantum revolution. Let’s look at some of the Amphenol RF products making quantum computing come to realization.
What does one use to provide a flexible connection option to route high-frequency signals within quantum computing applications? One might consider Subminiature version A (SMA) High-Frequency Semi-Rigid Cable Assemblies, such as the 135101-R1-12.00 (Figure 2). It is an RF Cable Assemblies SMA (50Ω) Straight Plug to Straight Plug, Ǿ 2.16mm (0.085”). It is available in other lengths ranging from 76mm–1219mm (3”–4’).
Figure 2: The Amphenol RF SMA High-Frequency Semi-Rigid Cable Assembly offers a flexible connection option for routing high-frequency signals within quantum computing applications. (Source: Mouser Electronics)
SMAs come with a threaded coupling mechanism. They are designed to be small in size and have low RF leakage. They can operate across frequencies of up to 26.5GHz. If higher frequencies are involved, look to the 2.92mm (0.114”) series from Amphenol, which offers an extended frequency range of up to 40GHz. SMAs terminate to a wide range of high-performance cables. Amphenol RF SMAs include PCB-mount and cable-mount connectors, as well as a variety of adapters, terminators, attenuators, and cable assemblies to meet a variety of designs. Conformable Cable Assembly options include:
SMA High-Frequency End Launch Jacks help consistently maintain the signal from a Qubit PCB. An example would be Amphenol RF’s 901-10513-1 (Figure 3). Precision-machined using a beryllium copper (BeCu) with gold plating contact, these products offer excellent Voltage Standing Wave Ratio (VSWR) performance up to 26.5GHz and are available for multiple, different PCB thicknesses. The connectors feature an optimized end launch design with either through-hole legs or traditional slide-on mounting legs that make them an ideal PCB connector solution for high-frequency applications.
Figure 3: The SMA High-Frequency End Launch Jacks from Amphenol RF reliably maintain the signal from a Qubit PCB. (Source: Mouser Electronics)
The subminiature push-on (SMP) high-frequency PCB connector interface is significantly smaller than an SMA connector for deployment in space-constrained applications (Figure 4). It is useful for board-to-board designs in quantum computing. The SMP connector offers an extended frequency range of up to 40GHz for highly optimized products. Its three-piece, board-to-board connector design is blind mateable. It may be terminated to semi-rigid conformable or flexible semi-rigid alternatives. Amphenol RF provides it in various PCB mounting options. It features limited detent and full detent options to secure a mating connector or bullet adapter. Examples from Amphenol RF include the SMP-MSLD-PCT19T and SMP-MSSB-PCS17T.
Figure 4: SMP High-Frequency PCB Connectors from Amphenol RF are well-suited for compact board-to-board designs in quantum computing applications. (Source: Mouser Electronics)
Similar to the SMP series, but yet even smaller, is the SMPM Micro-Miniature High-Frequency PCB connector for board-to-board quantum computing designs (Figure 5). For applications up to 65GHz, SMPM connectors feature a snap-on mating style similar to SMP connectors and are ideal for a range of precision and miniaturized applications. Amphenol RF machines SMPM PCB connectors from brass with gold plating for solderability and high-frequency electrical performance. Surface mount, through-hole leg, or edge-mount terminations are available. Users can pair these connectors with SMPM bullet adapters, achieving a minimum PCB spacing of 8.65mm. These PCB connectors paired with bullet adapters are ideal for blindmate situations. SMPM cable connectors are made from beryllium copper or brass with gold plating for durability of use and maximum electrical performance. Examples include the 925-196J-51PT and 925-197J-51PT.
Figure 5: SMPM High-Frequency PCB Connectors from Amphenol RF provide a Micro-Miniature connector option for board-to-board designs in quantum computing applications. (Source: Mouser Electronics)
The future of quantum computing applications relies on secure high-frequency electrical connections. Amphenol RF is the supplier that is bringing the necessary connection technologies to reality.
I look forward to the day when I am handed a new qubit computing platform from my employer to write on. Hopefully, its computational superpowers from the qubit will spill over into my writing, and I will move from producing hundreds of words of writing per day to … well, we shall one day see. But until then, I must stand on the sideline, answering the question many of us have: Am I in or out?
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