Words by Tiana Cline
Richard P Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga won the Nobel Prize in Physics “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles” in 1965. And now, decades of research later, quantum computers are finally here to solve problems classic computers never could. Finally, we’re stepping out the research lab with an exciting new way of computing to solve problems once considered unsolvable. Kind of. There are many problems we can’t solve today, which is why exploring fundamentally new ways of doing computation may open up new doors.
The first of these new machines you’ll probably encounter is IBM Q, described as “an industry-first initiative to build commercially available universal quantum computers for business and science”. They believe that while quantum computing may be a researcher’s playground right now, in five years’ time, it could become mainstream.
Unlike a classical computer, in which binary digits, or “bits,” can hold only one value (a ‘1’ or a ‘0’) at a time, quantum computers are made up of quantum bits, or “qubits,” that have the potential to hold multiple values simultaneously. What’s more is that a quantum computer’s power scales with its qubits – so the challenge is really in building enough qubits to reach critical mass of computational power, and then keeping them in a state of equilibrium where they’re working together and their power can be harnessed.
“A quantum computer is not your typical desktop computer or server,” explains Arvind Krishna, the Director of Research at IBM. “Quantum states are inherently fragile… and anything can interfere with their functioning – heat, noise, electro-magnetic interference. For that reason, we keep the chip inside a refrigerator that is colder than outer space.”
Quantum computing may be a radically different computing paradigm, but IBM is not alone in their quest to bring the quantum dream to reality. Microsoft announced a new quantum computing programming language and computing simulator designed specifically for quantum computing. Intel is also working to create qubit processors. At CES 2018, Intel unveiled a 49-qubit super-conducting quantum test chip code-named “Tangle Lake”.
“In the quest to deliver a commercially viable quantum computing system, it’s anyone’s game,” said Mike Mayberry, the Managing Director of Intel Labs. “We expect it will be five to seven years before the industry gets to tackling engineering-scale problems, and it will likely require one million or more qubits to achieve commercial relevance.”
From sci-fi to reality, this is only the beginning of the road to practical quantum computing