Quantum Computing: why all the excitement? and some quantum computing 101


September 28th, 2021 <10 minute read. 2,295 words


Why is there such excitement about quantum computers (“QC”)? Especially as some leading experts do not expect any useful workable machine to appear within the next 5 to 10 years, and most say 10 to 20 years before a useful machine can be used for commercial reasons, and one expert saying that he believes, in 2021, that there is an 80% chance of having a usable useful quantum computer by 2041- some 20 years in the future.


60 second summary:


Quantum computing is in its infancy, and it will be over 5 to over 30 years before a useful QC will be available for powerful commercial use. Running at many millions -or even trillions- of times faster than current super computers means that it can solve many of todays unsolvable problems and many new products and services will be developed once this is solved, across everything from medicines- new precision drugs, transforming medicine, encryption, defence, communications and Artificial Intelligence. QC will be a great accelerator of AI and revolutionize machine learning and solve problems once viewed as impossible, which has huge implications for mankind, hence the excitement, but its reality it may still be a ways off.



This note will address a number of things to do with quantum computing, keeping scientific detail to a minimum to shorten and ease the read. This is a broad area, that can only be touched on in a under 10 minute read, but hopefully key concepts will be highlighted in easy to read format. This will be reviewed in the following sections:


1) What is Quantum Computing?

2) What might happen by when?

3) What huge changes might it bring about?

4) Who are the main players?

5) Should I invest in the space and if yes, where and who?

6) Summary


1) What is Quantum Computing?


Quantum computers are machines that use the properties of quantum physics to store data and perform computations. Instead of bits (the zeros and ones that all current “classical” computers work on today), QCs use quantum bits, or qubits, which are typically subatomic particles such as electrons or photons. Qubits follow principles of quantum mechanics regarding how atomic and subatomic particles behave, which include unusual properties that give them super-processing capabilities. Eight bits is enough for a classical computer to represent any number between 0 and 255. But eight qubits is enough for a quantum computer to represent every number between 0 and 255 at the same time.


The first such property is superposition, or the capability for each qubit to be in multiple states at any given time.


The second property is entanglement, which means that two qubits remain connected so that actions performed on one affect the other, even when separated by great distances.


Due to entanglement, every qubit added to a quantum computer exponentially increases its computing power. To double your Quantum computing you just need to add one more qubit.


But QCs are very sensitive to disturbances in the computer and surroundings, such as slight vibrations, electrical interferences, temperature changes, or magnetic waves, that can cause superposition to decay or even disappear. To make a workable and scalable QC, researchers have to invent new technologies and build unprecedented vacuum chambers, superconductors, and supercooling refrigerators to minimise these losses in quantum coherence, or “decoherences” caused by the environment.


These limitations or issues have resulted in slow development of the number of qubits, from 2 in 1998 to 65 in 2020- which is too few to do anything particularly useful. However, even on a few dozen qubits, some computing tasks can be completed with QC over a million times faster than on your classical computers. The latest (Chinese) QC is capable of performing at least one task 100 trillion times faster than the world's fastest supercomputers.


Google demonstrated quantum supremacy (a point where quantum computers can do things that a classical computer can’t) in 2019, proving that a 54-quibit QC can solve a problem in minutes that would take a classical computer years to solve.


And a closer view of a quantum computer:





2) What might happen and by when?


Quantum computing is still in its infancy.


IBMs has useful webpages: What is Quantum Computing? | IBM and IBM’s roadmap for scaling quantum technology | IBM Research Blog outlines where they expect things to go, where IBM offers a programming language, Qiskit, to program its QCs, a programming language developed in python. They also offer training courses. Qiskit Learn This is open to the general public.


IBM, in 2021, has a team is developing a suite of scalable, increasingly larger and better processors, with a 1,000-plus qubit device, called IBM Quantum Condor, targeted for the end of 2023.


IBM in 2021 maintains over two dozen stable systems on the IBM Cloud for their clients and the general public to experiment on, including 5-qubit IBM Quantum Canary processors and their 27-qubit IBM Quantum Falcon processors.


Since 4,000 logical qubits should be enough for some useful applications- for example breaking bitcoin encryption – some optimists project that QCs will arrive in 5 to 10 years. Hence some more excitement from the bitcoin crowd- some of the wallets with billions of dollars in them will be hackable by a QC...


However the optimists may face the headwinds , acknowledged by IBM researchers, that control of errors caused by decoherence will get much worse the more qubits are added. So newer technologies will need to be developed to build with precision engineering. It is estimated that a useful QC will likely need a million or more physical qubits in order to deliver the performance of a 4,000 qubit logical qubit QC.


Intel’s Clarke said: “To me, the biggest challenge is how you wire them up. Every qubit requires its own wire and its control box. That works well when you have 50 or 60 qubits. It doesn’t work well when you have a million of them.”


Also given that QCs are programmed differently from classical computers new algorithms will need to be invented and new software tools built.


So these issues above means that most experts believe it will take 10 to 30 years to a get a useful QC. Hence Kai-Fu Lees prediction that there is a some 80 per cent chance that there will be a functional 4,000 logical qubit QC with powerful capabilities by 2041.


But the current announced state of the art is:

  • Rigetti introduced a multi-chip quantum processor, enabling an 80-qubit system by year’s end.

  • By year’s end, 2021, IBM will release Eagle, a 127-qubit quantum processor. IBM is working on a 433-qubit processor for 2022, and a 1,121-qubit device for 2023.

  • Google found a way to reduce qubit error rates. It also plans to develop a 1 million qubit processor by 2029.

IBM stated in 2020 would set them on a course to release a 433-qubit IBM Quantum Osprey system in 2022; in 2023, they expect to debut the 1,121-qubit IBM Quantum Condor processor. IBM stated however that as they explore realms even further beyond the thousand qubit mark, today’s commercial dilution refrigerators will no longer be capable of effectively cooling and isolating such potentially large, complex devices. That’s why they’re also introducing a 10-foot-tall and 6-foot-wide “super-fridge,” internally codenamed “Goldeneye,” a dilution refrigerator larger than any commercially available today. Their team has designed this behemoth with a million-qubit system in mind. IBM then states “a fault-tolerant quantum computer now feels like an achievable goal within the coming decade”.


In 2021 Google's quantum computer completed tasks running about 158 million times faster than the world's fastest supercomputer. In 200 seconds, the machine performed a mathematically designed calculation so complex that it would take the world's most powerful supercomputer, IBM's Summit, 10,000 years to do it.



3) What huge changes might it bring about?



Given that you will have a computer that can work at many million -or trillions- times faster than the fastest supercomputer today many problems that were before unsolvable will now be solvable, then huge advances can expect to be made.


When it really works, one world changing discovery will be drug discovery. Todays supercomputers can analyze only the most basic molecules. QC can simultaneously simulate new compounds as new drugs, and model complex chemical reactions to it, to determine their efficacy. QCs may be able to work out how to counteract climate change, invent new materials, explore space, model our brains, understand quantum physics, and many other applications. And the boost to AI - machine learning could be revolutionized. So some key areas affected could be healthcare, finance, aerospace, material science, and defence.



4) Who are the main players?


Some large corporations are very active in this area, such as IBM, Google, Intel, and Microsoft.


And of course there are innumerable startups, one recently floating on the stock market by way of a SPAC merger, Arqit Quantum, (Nasdaq: ARQQ) Arqit , which is focussed on encryption protection to protect against decryption attacks, especially from quantum computers (market cap at the time of writing $2.2bn).


The University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) (Hefei, China- 5 hours drive West from Shanghai) in June 2021 demonstrated what researchers claim is the world’s fastest quantum computing processor, surpassing the previous and unofficial record held by Google’s 53-qubit device in 2019 (called Sycamore-it completed a calculation in 200 seconds where Google claimed it would take a supercomputer about 10,000 years to finish the same task). USTC’s 66-qubit processor performed a complex calculation in 1.2 hours that would have taken today’s supercomputers 8 years to complete. In June of 2021, China’s USTC presented a paper on Zuchongzhi, a 66-qubit superconducting quantum processor. In a calculation, USTC utilized 56 qubits. It performed a task 2 to 3 times faster than Google’s 53-qubit processor.


The technology is still in its infancy, as stated. “When I take a look at the first applications, we’re going to need several thousand, if not 100,000 qubits, to do something useful,” said James Clarke, director of quantum hardware at Intel. “If we’re at 50 to 60 qubits today, it’s going to be a while before we can get to 100,000 qubits. It’s going to be awhile before we can get to 1 million qubits, which would be necessary for cryptography.”


“We really don’t know which technology is going to be the right technology to build a grand scheme fault tolerant machine. Companies have a five-year roadmap, leading to where they are going to have enough qubits to actually do something meaningful,” said Smith-Goodson from Moor Insights & Strategy.


“(Regarding the installed base), IBM has a large number of machines. They have over 20 quantum computers and no one can match that. They have a large ecosystem built up around it. They have a lot of universities and companies that they’re working with.”


In 2014, IBM demonstrated a 3-qubit device. Today, IBM sells a quantum computer with 65 qubits. Until recently, IBM led the industry in terms of overall qubit count in the superconducting space, according to the Quantum Computing Report. At present, the unofficial record is held by USTC with 66 qubits. IBM is next with 65, followed by Google with 53 qubits, Intel (49) and Rigetti (32), according to the Quantum Computing Report.


The next section mentions some emerging startups and some more established players.



5) Should I invest in the space and if yes, where and who?



As you will have noted above, a truly useful QC ie money making QC from an end user application- say 4,000 qubits or above, may likely not arrive for 10 to 30 years. So depending on your investment style- backing near term speculation, or backing proven technology companies, you will place your bets, if any, differently.


Today, in early 2021, there were 98 organizations working on quantum computers and/or qubits, according to the Quantum Computing Report. Companies are developing different types of qubits, including ion trap, neutral atoms, photonics, silicon spin, superconducting and topological. Each type is different, with some advantages and disadvantages. It’s too early to say which technology is superior. So where you might place your bets will depend one where you think the winning technologies will be, or try a diversified portfolio, simply betting on the space, and that it will retain enough funding to get to workable machines.


On the startup front, now with over 100 QC startups, some views these 5 as leaders:


· Multiverse Computing – Quantum Software.(San Sebastien, Spain) Software for the financial industry. Multiverse Computing

· Riverlane – Operating Systems (OS) (Cambridge, UK) Home - Riverlane

· Q-CTRL – Hardware Optimization. Provides hardware-agnostic cloud-based software for quantum computers (Sydney, LA) Funded by Data Collective (DCVC), Main Sequence Ventures, Horizons Ventures, Sequoia Capital China, Square Peg Capital, Sierra Ventures and In-Q-Tel. Q-CTRL

· Quantum Machines – Programming Language.(Tel Aviv) works on QUA, an intuitive pulse-level programming language for quantum computing. Realize the Quantum Possibilities of Tomorrow - Quantum Machines (quantum-machines.co) (2020- $17.5m Series A)

· Alpine Quantum Technologies – General Purpose Quantum Computing. Develops general-purpose quantum information processors. The startup makes use of a trapped-ion approach that is scalable and applicable across a wide range of industry verticals like material design, finance, and pharmaceuticals.(Innsbruck, Austria) Home - AQT | ALPINE QUANTUM TECHNOLOGIES


Or a sample of others:

Coldquanta; We're Making Quantum a Reality | ColdQuanta

Zapata Computing; Quantum Computing Software from Zapata Computing in Boston, MA

1Qbit; 1QBit - Redefining Intractable | Home

QCWare; QC Ware – Enterprise Solutions for Quantum Computing

D-Wave Solutions; Quantum Computing | D-Wave (dwavesys.com)

Honeywell; Quantum | Honeywell

Xanadu; Welcome to Xanadu

Rigetti: Quantum Computing | Rigetti


The quantum computer market is projected to grow from $320 million in 2020 to $830 million by 2024, according to Hyperion Research, so there will be a range of opportunities.


6) Summary


As can be seen from the above, much is happening in the QC industry, but quantum computing is in its infancy and meaningful QCs in daily use for a range of applications is still 5 to 30 years off, given the huge range of challenges to scale the qubits to a useful level.


But once solved, it will create many opportunities for huge advances in many industries.


References:

1. AI 2041. Kai-Fu Lee. 2021.

2. Numerous websites, eg The Great Quantum Computing Race (semiengineering.com)



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