Quantum computing is transitioning from scientific curiosity to technical reality. There’s so much hype around it because it comes with a promise to solve problems that were previously unsolvable.
It may take years before we will be able to take advantage of a quantum computer. Nonetheless, it's not too early to get in and start seeing what the roadmap looks like, MIT professor William Oliver said during the MIT Tech Review conference Future Compute.
“We have the first small-scale quantum computers available in the cloud to be used by people worldwide. And also Google's recent demonstration of quantum advantage. Quantum computing is transitioning from scientific curiosity to technical reality. That's happening around us right now,” he said.
Yet, as we have learned from the history of the development of the classical computer, advancing from discovery to useful machines is going to take time, development, and engineering.
“If you want to take advantage of this in the future, you need to be in the game to play today,” Oliver said.
The advent of quantum computers comes with a threat to current cryptographic schemes. Quantum cryptography comes with a promise to be unbreakable and is met with fear that it might break the classical cryptography that powers, for example, cryptocurrencies.
“We believe that there exist post-quantum cryptography schemes that - as we know it today - would not be susceptible to quantum attacks. Many researchers are working towards those today,” Oliver told CyberNews during a brief discussion before the event.
The hype around quantum computers
Many things have to be done before we can use quantum computers at scale and, in particular, for commercial purposes. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait 20 years before we can start generating benefits from these computers.
“In the near term, what we are finding is that companies that already put quantum computers online, and more are doing so each year, at the 50 qubit scale, and we are going to see that increased to hundreds of cubits in the next couple of years. And what this enables people and companies to do, is to play with them and work with them and develop algorithms on them,” Oliver said.
Those algorithms may not affect company bottom lines at the moment, but the technology is going to scale over time, so businesses need to be ready for it, Oliver reckons.
“I think there is a lot of work going on right now to getting these quantum computers online so more people can use them, not just the physicists and the engineers at universities, but more people around the world,” he said.
There's certainly a lot of hype today around quantum computing as it holds a tremendous and exciting promise for commercial impact in the future.
“On the other hand, we risk, of course, being on a hype cycle where there's disappointment if we make promises too soon and then don't deliver on those promises. I would encourage everybody to look at this for what it is. It is a very promising technology at a very early stage of development,” Oliver said.
It’s up to each company to decide what’s best for it in the future. However, the MIT professor encourages everyone to start looking at quantum computing and decide on the right time to get it.
“You may want to get in and start developing algorithms that are related to your business now, even though it may be a few years before you have a quantum computer that's large enough to implement that at a scale that exceeds what your classical computers can do. Nonetheless, it is not too early to get in and start seeing what the roadmap looks like,” he said.
The investment in quantum computing is growing, as well as the number of companies that are jumping in.
“It's still very early on. We need to continue this fundamental research, fundamental science, as well as the underlying fundamental engineering to be successful”, Oliver said.
How is a quantum computer different from a classical one?
“A classical computer is based on bits, classical bits of information, for example, a transistor, and it can be in state zero or state one. It's deterministic, seldom has an error,” Oliver said.
Quantum bits, or qubits, are different. They are, as Oliver explained, any two-level systems. You can think of them as existing anywhere on planet Earth. If you are at the North Pole, you are in state 0, and if you are at the South Pole, you are in state 1.
“But you can be anywhere on Earth. When you are anywhere that is not North or South pole, you are in a superposition state of zero and one. It is a manifestly quantum mechanical state, and it has certain properties. One of which is that measurement becomes probabilistic. For example, if you are pointed along the equator, and you make a measurement, half of the time you are going to get a 0, half of the time you are going to get a 1. The measurement would randomly put you in the North or South Pole. That's how it works,” Oliver explained.
Quantum computers rely on coding information in a fundamentally different way and with different behavior than classical computers. As Visual Capitalists put it, the consequence of this superposition is that quantum computers can test every solution of a problem at once.
For a more detailed explanation on how quantum computers work we suggest you watch Oliver’s lecture from 2019:
Types of quantum computers
Oliver highlighted three applications and approaches of quantum computing that we have today.
The first one is what we call the universal fault-tolerant quantum computer.
“This is a quantum computer that can run any quantum algorithm, and it can run any classical algorithm as well. Although, it often does no better than a classical computer at running those classical algorithms. But quantum algorithms can vastly outperform a classical computer,” the professor said.
Then there are digital and analog quantum simulators. “Here we are talking about applications in quantum chemistry, drug development, material science. We are using a quantum computer to simulate a quantum system. Here quantum advantage exists over known classical algorithms. But we need to build a quantum computer large enough to be practical,” Oliver said.
The third type of quantum computer is different from the former two. “It’s called the quantum annealer, and this focuses on optimization problems. So, for example, supply transport, pattern recognition, tasking problems,” Oliver said.
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