Quantum computers will tackle problems far beyond the reach of our existing technological capabilities. In efforts to “challenge its adversaries”, the US government has started a $1 billion quantum computer plan. These supercomputers will revolutionise materials development, overhaul the development of new drugs, and supercharge financial investment strategies.
Meanwhile, China has also invested billions of dollars, while the likes of US companies such as IBM, Intel and Google are in a race to build the most powerful and capable quantum computers. They’re unlikely to replace your laptop, smartphone or desktop computer, but they will transform the world as we know it.
Recently, IBM doubled its quantum computer performance to 64 qubits. But what is a qubit? And more importantly, what actually is quantum computing?
The basics of quantum computing explained
As you may already know, ordinary computer processors use bits to store data. A bit is a binary digit that can only ever be one of two digits–one or zero, corresponding to electrical values of on or off respectively.
Now enter the qubit, or quantum bit. Qubits work by manipulating a quantum physics phenomenon known as superposition, where they can be on and off at the same time, or somewhere in between.
Other quantum phenomena, such as entanglement and interference, join the states of multiple qubits together. The more qubits a quantum computer has, the greater its power, allowing them to process a far greater number of possible combinations of ones and zeros.
Scientists still don’t fully understand the role quantum physics plays in quantum computing, but they do know it allows for super fast calculations, which would take today’s computers an infinite amount of time to solve.
Quantum computers will open up whole new worlds to us, and make things happen that just aren’t possible right now.
Google is conducting research into the advancement of AI, where their team of AI researchers are building quantum processors to make algorithms that will accelerate machine learning. Google plans to exploit this to build better self-driving vehicles.
Currently, computers can only analyse molecular structures at a basic level, and one of the most anticipated applications of quantum computing is in the area of chemistry. Molecules themselves can have gigantic numbers of quantum states, a number so large that today’s computers don’t have the processing power to model them. Quantum computers will be able to model molecules on a quantum scale.
From the development of new drugs, to designing new materials; the world of quantum chemistry could become something that isn’t possible with our existing computer technology.
In fact, anywhere there’s a great number of uncertain and complicated systems, quantum computers could be used to simulate them. This could be applied to making more profitable investment portfolios, quicker delivery of packages with a fleet of trucks, and predicting the effects of climate change on a far more precise level and scale.
The race is on
The likes of tech giants such as IBM, Microsoft, Google and Intel have begun huge investment initiatives into quantum computers, along with a handful of start-ups and one industry player in particular, Honeywell, who is trying to claw its way back into the computing industry. However, the race has only just started, and IBM is currently the market leader, with 22 machines.
Rival firms are each taking radically different approaches in their efforts to win the race. Both IBM and Google are using extremely cold qubits that are cooled to temperatures colder than outer space–a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. Honeywell’s idea houses charged particles called ions in an ‘ion-trap’, while Intel’s approach makes use of a quantum mechanical property observed in electrons known as spin.
Each tech company is increasing the capability of their quantum computers by building more qubits into them. IBM will soon have upgraded to its 53-qubit Hummingbird system.
Jay Gambetta, vice president of IBM Quantum, said “We will soon release a second version of IBM Quantum Hummingbird that will greatly improve upon the first version, and our approach will scale up as it links multiple quantum processors together.”
The challenge for quantum computer developers is keeping the qubits stable as more are packed together. They’re so fickle in nature that current designers believe qubits will have to be grouped together into separate “logical” qubits that can uniformly withstand computing errors.
During the online Hot Chips processor conference earlier this month, Jim Clarke, Intel’s quantum computing hardware director, said that Intel tried IBM’s superconducting method with a 2018 processor. But that chip is too big, making it expensive, he added. Intel decided on spin qubits because a far greater number of qubits can be packed together onto a chip.
Honeywell, which plans to increase quantum volume by a factor of 10 each year, believes its ion-trap design will house lots of qubits, which should outpace IBM’s rate of development.
One great obstacle to overcome is the clear distinction between controlling qubits and disrupting them, owing to current quantum computers being controlled remotely. Conventional computers control qubits by sending control information, and read answers via a large collection of cables.
Both Intel and Microsoft developers are hoping to improve control by moving it to a separate processor that’s near to a quantum computing chip where the qubits are. Intel’s Horse Ridge chip is its first-generation control chip, and is currently working on Horse Ridge 2.
Microsoft also weighed in during the Hot Chip conference, adding that the astronomical number of bits of data the qubits receive results in the chip becoming very hot, and the challenge will be installing a chip that doesn’t cause it to heat up.
Clearly, a lot more research is needed to find the right quantum computer design. Industry leaders are still many years away from releasing a fully functional quantum computer that lives up to its expectations. The fiercely competitive race to design the best quantum computer continues to unfold, and we’re very eager to see which tech giant will win the race.