Quantum computing can change everything, and IBM is competing with Microsoft, Intel and Google to take control of it.

Original author: Rosalie Chan
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Jim Clark, Intel's quantum equipment director, with one of the company's quantum processors. A photo; Intel

  • Quantum computers are an extremely exciting technology that has the promise of creating powerful computing capabilities to solve previously unsolvable problems.
  • Experts claim that IBM was a leader in the field of quantum computing, so Google, Intel, Microsoft and many startups are under its influence.
  • Investors are attracted to startups in the field of quantum computing, including IonQ, ColdQuanta, D-Wave Systems and Rigetti, who will be able to change this market.
  • However, there is a catch: modern quantum computers, as a rule, are not as powerful and not as reliable as today's supercomputers, and they also need special conditions for starting and loading.

In January, IBM made a splash when it announced the release of IBM Q System One, the world's first quantum computer model available for business. The device was placed in a smooth glass casing of 9 cubic feet.

This is an important milestone for quantum computers, which are still located in research laboratories. According to IBM, buyers already intend to take this technology, which holds promise in various fields: chemistry, materials science, food production, the aerospace industry, drug development, stock market forecasting and even in the fight against climate change.

IBM Q System One. Photo: IBM

The reason for the unrest is that a quantum computer has seemingly magical properties that allow it to process exponentially more information. A quantum computer is not just a very fast computer; rather, it is a completely different computing paradigm that requires a radical rethinking.

The winner in the technology race will be the company that takes advantage of the opportunities provided by this technology. IBM, Microsoft, Google and other tech giants, as well as startups, rely on this technology.

Business Insider asked a couple of questions to IBM vice president of IBM Q Strategy and Ecosystem, Bob Syutor, on how to make these systems accessible to people: how will people get access to them? How can so many people learn how to use quantum computers to accomplish their tasks?

There is little chance of seeing quantum computers in the office anytime soon. The experts with whom we spoke believe that, despite the fact that they are available from IBM, it will be another five to ten years before quantum computing really becomes mainstream. IBM Q System One is currently only available as a cloud computing service for select customers. It will be some more time before something like that people can get and get to work for personal purposes.

Indeed, experts claim that quantum computers have high expectations, but they are far from mass production. They are extremely fragile and require special working conditions. Moreover, quantum computers today are not as reliable and not as powerful as the computers that we already have.

“We believe that in about ten years, a quantum computer will change your life or mine,” said Business Insider Jim Clark, director of quantum equipment at Intel. - In fact, we are only at the first mile of the marathon. This does not mean that we are not concerned about this. ”

What is a quantum computer?

Bill Gates once said that the mathematics underlying the quantum were beyond his comprehension, but not everyone agreed.

“The idea that quantum physics is also physics and too complicated is somewhat erroneous,” Chris Monroe, CEO and co-founder of IonQ, says Business Insider. “What makes her incomprehensible to many people is that it is incomprehensible, but it is also incomprehensible to me, as it is to you.” If something can be in superposition, it means that it can be in two states at the same time. It’s strange because we don’t encounter this in the real world. "

The computers that we used display the data in the form of a string 1 or 0, called binary code. However, a quantum computer can represent data in the form of 1, 0, or, most importantly, both numbers at the same time.

When a system can be in more than one state at a time, this is called a “superposition” - one of the seemingly magical properties of quantum computing. Another key principle here is “entanglement,” which is a quantum property that allows two particles to move absolutely synchronously, regardless of how far they are physically separated.

As the article explainsin Scientific American magazine, these two qualities are combined into a computer that can handle much more data at the same time than any system on the market today.

The power of a quantum computer is measured in qubits, the basic unit of measurement in a quantum computer. In the same way that modern computers have 32-bit or 64-bit processors (a measure of how much data they can process at the same time), a quantum computer with a large number of qubits has a significantly larger amount of computing power.

Inside a quantum computer. Photo: IBM

Heaven is the limit

All this means that a quantum computer can solve problems that were previously limited by processing power.

For example, a quantum computer can solve the well-known traveling salesman problem by a crude method - a complex computational task that requires finding the shortest route between several cities before returning home. It sounds simple, but if you look at it from a mathematical point of view, finding the only optimal path becomes more difficult when you add more cities to its route.

In the same way, a quantum computer could get through the most tricky, most laborious tasks, filtering out huge volumes of financial, pharmaceutical or climatological data in order to find optimal solutions. Indeed, the quantum start-up D-Wave is already collaborating with Volkswagen to analyze motion patterns and weed out a huge amount of interference in order to get to the point.

Its usefulness in the field of cryptography is discussed. A quantum computer is able to master the encryption method, different from the previously known cipher, which allows it to easily decrypt even state secrets. There is great interest on the part of world governments in this useful feature, while activists fear that the advent of quantum computing could destroy privacy.

Physical challenge

“Since quantum computing is still in its early stages, there is a lot of information that is still unproven,” said Matthew Briss, Gartner’s vice president of R&D. “But buyers are already looking for a scope to determine the competitive advantages of quantum computing for their business,” he says.
Despite all the hype, experts believe that quantum computers are as far from a leading position as PCs in the 1950s. Of course, they are gaining momentum, but slowly.
“Quantum computing can be compared to a slow moving train,” said Business Insider Brian Hopkins, vice president and chief analyst at Forrester. - If it passes one inch per second, then in a month it will pass already two inches per second. Pretty soon, he will start to move faster. ”

The big problem now is that a quantum computer cannot do anything that a classical computer could not do. The industry is looking forward to a moment called quantum excellence when quantum computers go beyond current constraints.

“When customers come to us, the main thing that they tell us is that they don’t care what model, if only it would be useful for their business,” says analyst Briss. - There is no model that could get ahead of classical algorithms. We really need to wait until the quantum computer hardware begins to improve. ”

Katy Puli, IBM Research Officer, examines a cryostat that helps quantum computers keep their temperature low. Photo: Andy Aaron, IBM

A big problem remains the lack of computing power. It is assumed that for quantum superiority, a computer with a capacity of 50 qubits will be required. Although this milestone was overcome in the laboratory, it is unstable and cannot be maintained. Indeed, qubits can either be subject to errors or be unstable, which leads to problems with their generation and lowers their potential.

Another important factor is more material. Quantum computers must be completely isolated from the environment in order to function, and they require very low temperatures. Even the weakest vibrations can lead to the destruction of qubits, leading them out of superposition, just as a child, knocking on a table, causes spinning coins to fall on the table.

Previous quantum computers, such as the IBM Q System One, are so cumbersome that the necessary isolation and cooling conditions are becoming a real problem. This problem is aggravated by the lack of necessary components: superconducting cables and low-temperature refrigerators. They are in severe shortage.

Ultimately, this means that while knowledge is being improved and technology is being developed, quantum computing is still practically impossible.

“One of the problems in my working group is the manipulation of materials, silicon, metals so that we can create a very homogeneous environment,” said Clark of Intel. - This is basically the best semiconductor technology. The technologies that we need to create large-scale quantum computing do not yet exist. ”
Another problem is that quantum computers have undeniable potential for providing unanticipated computing power. However, in this world there are not many people who actually have experience programming or managing these systems, and fascinated potential buyers are trying to figure out how to actually use it.

Great Quantum Race

Analysts claim that IBM is currently leading the quantum computing race due to the limited commercial availability of the IBM Q System One. Because it is accessed via the cloud, IBM can support these special conditions for this quantum computer to function while allowing selected customers to use it.

“I think [the IBM quantum computer] is swinging,” said analyst Briss. “I think the model of quantum computing as a service is the right model.” By placing it in a container and handling specific tasks, they are really trying to improve its quality. ”

Sarah Sheldon and Pat Human from IBM are working on a dilution refrigerator that cools quantum computers. Photo: IBM

At the same time, analysts note that any of the players in this market can have a breakthrough at any moment that will allow him to break ahead, and that this is still a necessary rivalry.

Different IT giants have a different approach to this problem. Intel, IBM, Google and the quantum computing startup Rigetti are building systems based on superconducting circuits, relying on modern supercomputers.

Microsoftuses a completely different and perhaps more risky approach, trying to create a better qubit. The topological qubit that Microsoft is trying to create fragment electron electrons to store information in several places at the same time, making it more stable and less prone to destruction. According to analyst Hopkins, this is less reliable than what his competitors are trying to create, but the result will be an important step forward for the entire field of quantum computing.

“They got involved in a gamble and many believe that they will never succeed,” Hopkins says.

As for adventures, startups such as IonQ and D-Wave are betting on cutting-edge technologies such as ion capture and quantum annealing. Simply put, they try in different ways to achieve greater performance and stability from each qubit, using completely new methods.

“This allows us to create a quantum computer that solves complex problems and continuously progresses in this,” said Business Insider Mark Johnson, vice president of design and development of processors and quantum products at D-Wave.

IBM's quantum tech specialist strolls through the IBM Q Computing Center at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Photo: Connie Zhou for IBM

Quantum startups

The surge in quantum computing has sparked a wave of investor interest in related startups. According to Robert Syutor of IBM, there are about 100 startups in the world of quantum software, hardware, and even consulting. This is small compared to the huge startup market, but much more than before.

“I’ve been in this business for a very long time, from the very beginning,” said Monroe from IonQ. - For a long time, it was in its infancy, until 5-8 years ago it attracted attention and attracted huge investments. It became clear that the time had come. ”

Chris Monroe, CEO and co-founder of IonQ, a quantum computing startup. Photo: IonQ

Some, like Rigetti, are ready to fight on equal terms with technical titans, smashing their own quantum chips and sophisticated quantum computing systems.

“This is the foundation of our business,” said Business Insider Betsy Masiello, vice president of products at Rigetti. - In the quantum space, there are many companies that work on software applications in the field of quantum computing. We manufacture microcircuits and build computing systems. ”

Matthew Kinsella, managing director of Maverick Ventures, says he is optimistic about the field of quantum computing. His company went so far as to invest in ColdQuanta, a company that manufactures equipment used in quantum systems. In five to ten years, he expects quantum computers to surpass today's systems. Maverick Ventures has made a long-term bet.

“I really believe in quantum computing, although it may take longer than expected before a quantum computer becomes better than a traditional computer for everyday tasks. Most likely in the next few years we will get the benefits of quantum computers in solving small-scale problems, ”Kinsella said.

D-Wave's 2000Q Systems Lab. Photo:

Kinsella's D-Wave , as well as the analysts we spoke to, in anticipation of the so-called “quantum winter”. There may be a stir around quantum computers, but people are reassuring themselves, experts warn. Cars are not perfect yet, and it will be years before investors see the results.

In perspective

Even beyond quantum superiority, experts assure us that there is still room for traditional computers and supercomputers. Until then, there is still a problem to solve with cost, size, reliability and processing power before we can discuss it.

“You should take a breath,” said analyst Briss. “There are a lot of exciting things taking time in this area.” This is a conglomerate of physics, computer science and, frankly, scientific analysis. We would not have to study this if we knew all the answers, but in the future we will have a large amount of research work. "

Quantum Rigetti computer. Photo: Rigetti

Nevertheless, for many it is clear that this is the future. Just like the manufacturers of the first mainframe computer did not realize that this would ultimately lead to an increase in the number of palm-sized handheld smartphones. A quantum computer could be the first step on a whole new path.

Few, like Microsoft's vice president of corporate governance Todd Holmdahl, are optimistic enough to say that it could be more meaningful than artificial intelligence and machine learning today. He used to tell his children that they should do what they are passionate about and that they can always get jobs in the field of artificial intelligence. Now he will say the same thing about quantum computing.

“This is an area that will develop. We need people to fill it and not let it wither, ”said Kholmdal. “It plays an important role for our generation, making it possible to create amazing things in the future.”

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