What is Quantum Computing?

edited September 20 in Acer Corner

The concept of quantum computing has fascinated scientists for decades, yet it is still in somewhat uncharted territory. Many believe it could be the gateway to solving problems that modern computers cannot handle. It could also potentially speed up high-performance computing tasks tremendously. This article discusses where the technology is today, and where it might be headed.

Quantum computing explained

Quantum computing harnesses quantum mechanical phenomena—superposition and entanglement—to process information. By tapping into these phenomena, quantum computers handle information in a fundamentally different way than traditional computers like smartphones, laptops, or even today’s most powerful supercomputers. This makes them a lot more efficient and unlocks their capability to perform complex tasks in a much shorter timeframe.

How do quantum computers work?

  • Quantum computers process information differently than traditional computers. Instead of relying on transistors—which can only represent either the “1” or the “0” of binary information at a single time—quantum computers use qubits, which can represent both 0 and 1 simultaneously.
  • A quantum computer’s processing speed grows exponentially in relation to the number of qubits that are entangled (linked together). This differs from a traditional computer system, which sees its processing speed increase in direct proportion to the number of transistors.
  • Though quantum computers may outperform traditional computers, in many types of calculation they are not expected to offer a great advantage. As such, most everyday processing will likely be better handled by traditional computers. 

What is quantum computing used for? 

From simulating new and more efficient materials to predicting how the weather will change, the ramifications for businesses are potentially huge. Here are five quantum use cases currently being explored: 

  1. Predicting the weather. There are countless ways that a weather event might manifest itself, and traditional computers are incapable of ingesting all of the data required for a precise prediction. Quantum computers could model how innumerable environmental factors all come together to create a major storm, hurricane, or heatwave. Quantum computers would be able to analyze virtually all of the relevant data at once, so they are likely to generate predictions that are much more accurate than current weather forecasts. 
  2. Helping to solve the traveling salesman problem. A salesman is given a list of cities they need to visit and the distance between each city, and they have to come up with the route that will save the most time and cost the least money. At the scale of a large, multinational corporation such as an airline, dealing with hundreds of destinations, a few thousand fleets, and strict deadlines is a complex traveling salesman problem. The ability of a quantum computer to take on several calculations at once means that it could run through all of the different routes in tandem, allowing it to discover the optimal solution much faster than a traditional computer. 
  3. Protecting sensitive data through cryptography. Traditional cryptographic algorithms are deterministic: a given input will always produce the same output. The risk for users is that a hacker could crack a password using what is known as a brute-force attack. Brute-force hacking requires extremely powerful computers to achieve with any meaningful speed, so it is not considered a near-term risk for cryptography, but hardware is improving. One way to strengthen cryptography is by using algorithms that generate entirely random and illogical passwords, something quantum computers excel at. 
  4. Discovering new drugs. The discovery of new drugs relies on molecular simulation, which consists of modeling the way that particles interact inside a molecule to try and create a configuration that is capable of fighting off a given disease. As would be expected, this requires huge calculations. For example, modeling a molecule with only 70 atoms would take a traditional computer 13 billion years. Quantum computers could seamlessly simulate all of the most complex interactions between particles that make up molecules, enabling scientists to rapidly identify candidates for successful drugs. 
  5. Creating better car batteries. Lithium polymer and related technologies used in batteries today are still limited in capacity and charging speed. As with the search for new drugs, quantum computers could perform molecular simulations in the search for new materials that have better properties for building batteries. 

Top quantum computing companies 

IBM

In 2016, IBM became the first to offer cloud-based quantum computing access to the IBM quantum computer, letting virtually anyone access these once-prohibitive resources. It currently has a fleet of 20+ of the most powerful quantum systems in the world available through its cloud platform. IBM’s roadmap includes a 1,000-qubit chip, IBM Quantum Condor, targeted for the end of 2023, which will bring improvements in scale and error correction. 

D-Wave 

D-Wave offers a cloud-based, full-stack of systems, software, developer tools, and services to enable enterprises, government agencies, national laboratories, and academic organizations to build quantum applications. D-Wave have been building quantum computer systems for more than 20 years and are considered one of the leaders in quantum hardware and services. 

Google

Google’s Quantum Computing Service provides remote access to the Google quantum computer. Researchers with approved projects can schedule jobs on Google’s processors and run simulations using Google infrastructure. 

Google made headlines back in 2019 when it announced its quantum supremacy milestone, but it now says we have a long way to go before such computers can be made useful. Google is aiming to build a “useful, error-corrected quantum computer” by the end of the decade.

Microsoft Azure Quantum

Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform offers a collection of resources from other quantum hardware companies. Through Azure Quantum, customers can access quantum resources provided by QCI, Honeywell, Toshiba, IONQ, and 1Qloud without the high expenses and infrastructure costs that typically come with this type of hardware.

IonQ

IonQ is notable for having developed a quantum computing system that is based on trapped ions, where the qubits are suspended in a vacuum and manipulated by laser beams. This method differs from the more common approach whereby superconducting qubits are operated at incredibly cold temperatures. IonQ’s quantum hardware is available through Microsoft’s Azure platform. 

Challenges

With technology as delicate as this, any kind of environmental noise (such as radiation) or imperfection that affects the careful balance of the qubits causes them to decohere. Put simply, what this means is that noise and interference introduce random errors into the calculations that reduce accuracy.

To deal with this issue, scientists have to either perform operations faster–before decoherence has time to set in, generally at the microsecond scale–or they can try to increase how long the qubits remain stable, by constructing an environment that is less prone to interference.

When will quantum computers be available? 

The infrastructure involved in quantum computing is highly expensive and complex. Private companies can access quantum resources now through cloud platforms offered by Microsoft Azure Quantum, Google’s Quantum Computing Service, and IBM. Additionally, D-Wave provides hardware resources to large enterprises and government entities as well as online access to its services.

For the general public, this nascent technology is still out of reach. The technology and its potential application in our everyday lives is going to continue developing in the coming decades.

Quantum computing is already starting to disrupt industries, with many predicting it will reshape economies, national security, medicine, and more. As the top companies continue to innovate, this technology will only become more powerful and accessible, paving the way for untold benefits.

*The opinions reflected in this article are the sole opinions of the author and do not reflect any official positions or claims by Acer Inc.

About Ashley Buckwell: Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.


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