Quantum Computing: The Most Innovative Technology of the 21st Century

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Recent years have seen a significant rise in interest in quantum computing. This has been fueled by breakthroughs in quantum technology, followed by rising investments from private equity firms.

Quantum computational techniques like quantum machine learning and quantum simulation are set to revolutionize industry. From detecting fraudulent activity, to optimizing supply chains, to accelerating drug discovery and testing.

Source: McKinsey

Quantum computing is radically different from classical computing. It’s intimately tied to the laws of quantum mechanics in how it maps problems to quantum space. Instead of the usual bits (0 and 1) used in classical computing, it uses qubits (quantum bits) to perform calculations exponentially faster.

Quantum technology is coming of age. And business leaders are grasping its potential for tackling complex problems. The facts bear this out. P&S Intelligence estimates the global quantum computing market will grow 56% year-on-year between 2020 and 2030, growing from USD 507m to USD 65bn.

In this article, we’ll explain what quantum computing is. We’ll also explore breakthroughs in quantum computing and its myriad applications.

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computing is a type of computing based on the quantum states of subatomic particles. Classical computers process information in binary digits or bits. Whereas a classical bit can only represent one state (or value), 0 or 1, a quantum bit (or qubit) can represent both states. This is called superpositioning. The new superposed state forms a new valid state or qubit.

As an illustration, four classical bits (also called a nibble or half-byte) spawns $2^4$ or 16 different combinations. A classical computer can only process one combination at a time. A quantum computer processes all 16 of them concurrently.

In quantum computing, superposing $n$ states does not result in $n$ different states, but rather in $2^n$ different states. So each qubit represents (or processes) $2^n$ states. What’s even more amazing, qubits can be linked to one another in what’s called entanglement. Each entangled qubit adds an extra two dimensions to the computational space.

The process of superposition and entanglement gives quantum computers their exponential processing power. The ability to outperform a classical computer is referred to as quantum supremacy.

Potential applications of quantum computing

Supercomputers working in parallel perform quadrillions of floating point operations to forecast the weather, simulate earthquakes, or model bone fractures. Even though applications for quantum computers are narrow, and they aren’t meant to replace classical computers, there are certain classes of problems only quantum computers are suited for.

Many companies are experimenting with quantum computing to find practical ways of extracting value. This requires a deep understanding of the business context and the problems they’re trying to solve. A materials design company, for example, would need a quantum programmer who is also a skilled chemist.

Source: Gartner

Over 130 companies and research institutions are engaged in quantum technology related research and development. These include IBM, Google, Microsoft, NASA, Quantum AI Laboratory, and D-Wave Systems.

Quantum computing could spearhead advancements in:

Astrophysics. Quantum computers could help model cosmic phenomena and shed light on such mysteries as black holes and dark matter.

Artificial Intelligence. Neural networks mimic the complex network of nerve cells in the human brain. Just like our brains, they have to be trained in a process that takes weeks. Quantum algorithms could reduce that process to a matter of seconds, speeding up the applications of quantum computing.

Computer Science. Quantum computing could enable multidimensional search functions, query optimization, and simulations. Faster calculations could help diagnose faults in circuit design.

Machine Learning. Quantum computers could enable faster structured predictions and help build more efficient knowledge graphs. It could improve semi-supervised learning, unsupervised learning, and deep learning.

Materials Science: Quantum computers could enable the design and production of super materials such as heat resistant semiconductors or superconductors.

Environment. Quantum computing could help develop energy efficient solar panels, building materials, and superconductors which carry electricity without losing energy.

Biochemistry. Quantum computing could simulate complex molecular structures and speed up the design and development of new drugs.

Chemistry. Quantum computers could enable the production of environmentally-friendly fertilizers and catalysts.

Healthcare. Quantum computers could speed up DNA sequencing and the diagnosis of hereditary diseases. They could also speed up the detection of diseases in cells or tissue.

Finance. Quantum computing could enable lightning speed trade simulations. It could also speed up the detection of fraud.

In short, quantum computing delivers enormous speed for specific problems. Enormous amounts of data are being produced by companies and organizations. Quantum computers deliver immense computational power enabling technologies such as machine learning, 5G, or virtual reality. Also, quantum tunneling has the potential to reduce energy consumption significantly.

Breakthroughs in quantum computing

Rapid advances in semiconductor technology have taken us from the desktop calculator to the smartphone. But in the era of big data, companies need a new form of computing power. Quantum computing is set to power the future of artificial intelligence and data analytics. It will help us face some of the biggest industrial challenges of the 21st century.

Quantum computers represent a fundamental change in computing. They’re becoming more powerful and more reliable. They’re on the cusp of demonstrating a significant advantage over classical computers for certain applications. Recent years have brought many exciting advancements in quantum computing.

Google’s Sycamore computer reaches quantum supremacy

In 2019 Google reported that its Sycamore quantum computer had successfully completed a calculation in less than 4 minutes than it would’ve taken IBM’s Summit Supercomputer 10,000 years to complete. IBM naturally disputes these claims. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that some scientists have likened this breakthrough to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903. The significance is, for the first time, Google has reportedly shown that quantum computers can outperform classical computers for certain tasks.

This is no mean feat. Quantum superposition was achieved by Google’s Sycamore computer by embedding two niobium electrodes (qubits )in a standard silicon chip. A thin layer of aluminium oxide separated them. This created a Josephson contact which provided the superposition. But the slightest disturbance from even one atom of air or particle of light would render any calculation ineffective. Therefore Google had to build its quantum computer inside a gold and copper “cryostat” cooled to near absolute zero – ie. $-273.15^0C$. Sycamore’s qubits could only maintain several-states-at-once for about 15 microseconds (millionths of seconds) before interference destroyed them – too short for any practical application. However, physicists at Google are widening that gap and are reportedly “within touching distance” of full error correction.

OTI Lumionics is using quantum algorithms to create OLED displays

There’s a lot of interest in extending the applications of OLED technology in consumer technology. Current OLED displays require multiple layers of material and a cathode to function. Because cathodes aren’t transparent, cameras and sensors have to sit on top of the display. This makes camera-enabled devices such as smartphones and head-worn devices more bulky.

To remove this bulkiness, cameras would have to be installed under the display. Which means displays would have to be transparent. OTI replaced standard OLED cathodes with material patterned with microscopic holes, effectively letting light flow through the display.

From the start, OTI adopted a computer-based approach to material design. As a small company, they don’t have the budget to trial a large array of molecular designs until they find a winning combination.

But classical computing techniques aren’t accurate or fast enough to solve many of the problems encountered in computational chemistry. Qubits in quantum computers, however, could perform many calculations at once and model the complex alignment of materials. OTI operates what they call a “materials discovery platform” which designs advanced materials using quantum simulations and machine learning.

This heralds a new era for phones, laptops, tablets, foldable devices, and AR/VR hardware.

The next breakthrough in quantum computing

Despite the giant strides made by IBM Quantum System One and Google Sycamore, quantum computers still have a long way to go. The fundamental physics are still being developed and we may not witness a significant breakthrough for a few years.

To really succeed, quantum computers must be able to work with thousands (if not millions of qubits). Quantum interference is still a major problem and there’s always the risk that the hype outpaces the reality.

But, as long as there’s sustained investment in quantum technology, the future’s bright.The breakthroughs we’ve discussed are only the tip of the iceberg. Governments, institutions and companies are investing in quantum computing and we may well see the next breakthrough sooner than we think.