The Quantum Computing Era Is Here. Why It Matters—And How It May Change Our World.
Hyper-accurate long-term weather forecasting. Life-saving drugs discovered through deep study of the behavior of complex molecules. New synthetic carbon-capturing materials to help reverse climate change caused by fossil fuels. Stable, long-lasting batteries to power electric vehicles and store green energy for the utility grid.
It may read like an ambitious wish list. But many scientists predict that the emerging era of quantum computing could lead to breakthroughs like these, while also tackling other major problems that are beyond reach of our current computing regime.
Quantum computing is not a new idea. But it’s only been in recent years that workable technology has begun to catch up to the theory.
— IBM Research (@IBMResearch) January 13, 2020
IBM in 2016 made a quantum computer available to the public by connecting it to the cloud—a true turning point in the development of this technology by enabling outside researchers and developers to explore its possibilities. And the industry took a major stride in September 2019 with the opening of IBM’s Quantum Computation Center. That fleet of 15 systems includes the most advanced quantum computer yet available for external use.
Scientists are tantalized by the possibilities. One analyst predicted quantum will be as world altering in the 2020s as the smartphone was in the decade just ended.
Collaboration Is Key
The Quantum Computation Center offers about 100 IBM clients, academic institutions and more than 200,000 registered users access to this cutting-edge technology through a collaborative effort called the IBM Q Network and the rapidly growing community around Qiskit, IBM’s open-source development platform for quantum computing. Through these efforts, IBM and others are exploring the ways quantum computing can address their most complicated problems, while training a workforce to use this technology.
Facilitating education and developing the next-generation workforce is a big focus for IBM. That includes spurring access to Qiskit and educational tools like the “Coding With Qiskit” video series that has generated more than 1.5 million impressions and over 10,000 hours of content consumed by users. The company has also released an open source textbook written by experts in the field, including several from IBM Research, as well as professors who have used some of the material in their own university courses.
Q Network partners include ExxonMobil, Daimler, JPMorgan Chase, Anthem, Delta Airlines, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Georgia Tech University, Keio University, Stanford University’s Q-Farm program and Mitsubishi Chemical among dozens of others.
Last year IBM announced partnerships with the University of Tokyo and the German research company Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, which will greatly expand the company’s already broad network of quantum researchers globally. The history of computing tells us that creative people around the world will find uses for these systems that no one could have predicted.
At this stage, it’s difficult to predict what kind of impact quantum will have on employment or the economy. But the research firm Gartner projects that, “by 2023, 20 percent of organizations will be budgeting for QC projects, up from less than 1 percent in 2018.”*
“How do we get to the quantum future?’’ asks Katie Pizzolato, Director of Applications Research within the IBM Q Network. “By building the most advanced quantum systems and a developmental platform and making it available to the world.”
What Makes Quantum Different
How does quantum differ from “classical” digital computing? Conventional computers use transistors that can only store information in two electrical states—On or Off—which binary computer code represents as 1 or 0. These are the binary digits, or “bits,” of classical computing.
Quantum computing is an altogether different beast. It derives its origins from the field of quantum physics, which emerged in the early 20th century when scientists began studying the behavior of subatomic particles.
What they discovered shocked many of them. Simply put, subatomic particles can exist in two places, or two states, at the same time, defying previously accepted laws of the physical world. The term for this is “superposition.” Researchers also discovered that particles separated by distances are able to share information instantaneously, faster than the speed of light. This is called “entanglement.”
If this sounds strange and implausible, that’s because it is. Niels Bohr, one of the scientists who pioneered the field of quantum mechanics, quipped that anyone “who is not shocked by quantum theory doesn't understand it.”
This subatomic reality has profound implications for computing. The binary bits used by conventional computers—those 0s and 1s—limit the kind of task classical computers can perform, and the speed at which they can do those tasks.
Qubits are the basis for quantum computers. They transcend this 1 or 0 binary limitation. Unlike bits, qubits can exist in multiple states simultaneously. This gives them the potential to process exponential amounts of information.
A quantum machine with just a couple of qubits can process only about as much information as a classical 512-bit computer. But because of the exponential nature of the platform, the dynamic changes very quickly. Assuming perfect stability, 300 qubits could represent more data values than there are atoms in the observable universe. This opens the opportunity to solve highly complex problems that are well beyond the reach of any classical computer.
“A beauty of quantum computers is that they will offer a more subtle way of thinking about problems that goes beyond binary—that goes beyond simple 0 or 1, Yes or No, True or False,’’ says Dario Gil, the Director of IBM Research. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be specific answers in the end. But quantum computing will make it possible to confront many of the world’s most complex problems that are beyond the ability of classical binary computing to quickly solve.’’
What can quantum computing do for us?
Quantum computers will be orders of magnitude more powerful than anything we have today. But what problems will they solve? What are scientists doing with them now?
It’s generally agreed that most important quantum applications are years away. But researchers say some promising applications stand out:
Quantum computing could lead to a novel yet ambitious plan to reverse the negative impacts of climate change, by helping find efficient ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
To do that, scientists require a better understanding of the carbon atom and how it interacts with other elements. Researchers need to be able to observe and model the way each carbon atom’s eight orbiting electrons might interact with the electrons of an almost infinite variety of other molecules, until researchers find the combination that can best bind the carbon.
Batteries to store more electricity for clean-energy uses
One fundamental building block of our clean-energy future will be batteries. Today’s batteries lose power too quickly. They also can’t hold enough charge to meet increasing demands. And at times, they’re unstable. Today’s most-used battery type, lithium-ion, is dependent on cobalt, a metal whose global supplies are dwindling.
We’ll need better batteries for applications like powering electric vehicles. Utility companies will need them to store solar and wind energy, for example, for use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
“We need to find a fundamentally different chemistry to create the batteries of the future,’’ Pizzolato says. “Quantum computing could let us effectively peer inside the batteries’ chemical reactions, to better understand the materials and reactions that will give the world those better batteries.”
New insights into chemistry
Learning more about chemical reactions on the atomic level could also lead to breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals, or materials like energy-efficient fertilizer (currently a massively energy-intensive endeavor, and a major contributor to carbon emissions).
The catalysts that spark these sorts of discoveries are the essence of nearly all progress in chemistry. But because of the infinitely complex ways in which atoms interact with each other, almost all chemistry breakthroughs have come about through accident, intuition or exhausting numbers of experiments. Quantum computing could make this work faster and more methodical, leading to new discoveries in medicine, energy, materials and other fields.
It’s no surprise that that financial institutions are exploring the use of quantum to balance portfolios and pricing options, the instruments used for hedging risk. Because of the complexity of processing a large number of continually changing variables it often takes a full day to come to a correct price.
Quantum promises to make such calculations in a matter of minutes, meaning these derivatives could be bought and sold in near real time. Some banks, like JPMorgan Chase, are already testing quantum computing for this very purpose.
For consumers, whether saving for a home, nurturing a college-savings plan, or building assets for a secure retirement, the peace-of-mind benefits of lower-risk and higher-profit financial products could be significant.
Cryptography is a field that has attracted considerable attention in the quantum conversation. So far, much of the discussion has involved the perceived perils of a new class or code breakers. But the counter argument—new types of more secure data privacy systems—could prove just as compelling.
Either way, true breakthroughs are probably not coming soon.
The most sophisticated data security software now uses complex algorithms to generate passwords that would take classical computers a long time to break. Quantum threatens to completely overturn this paradigm, making current encryption effectively useless. A quantum computer algorithm created a quarter-century ago, called Shor’s algorithm, could theoretically crack even the most powerful of today’s forms of encryption. But Shor’s algorithm would require fault-tolerant quantum computers that don’t yet exist and might still be many years away.
Still, the possibility that current cybersecurity standards could be made obsolete has drawn the attention of governments. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, has a competition to develop new encryption tools resistant to the potential danger.
What Must Happen To Fulfill Quantum’s Promise?
Despite the flurry of activity and rapidly growing interest in quantum computing, major breakthroughs with real-world applications are probably years away.
One reason is the fickleness of subatomic matter. Qubits are extremely delicate, and even a small disturbance knocks particles out of quantum state. That’s why quantum computers are kept at temperatures slightly above absolute zero, colder than outer space, since matter becomes effectively more stable the colder it gets. Even at that temperature, qubit particles typically remain in superposition for only fractions of a second.
— IBM News Room (@IBMNews) January 8, 2020
Figuring out how to keep qubits in a prolonged state of superpostition is a major challenge that scientists still need to overcome.
A next major benchmark, Pizzolato says, will be the successful implementation of “logical qubits” that can maintain a quantum state longer than is now technologically possible. Logical qubits are necessary for fault-tolerance—the true test of quantum computing’s utility. Like others at IBM, Pizzolato is reluctant to predict a timeline but says the logical qubit is likely to arrive sometime in the next decade.
Another open question is economic: How will the arrival of the Quantum Age impact the number, categories and quality of jobs in the decades to come? It’s difficult to say right now how big an industry quantum computing will eventually be. But currently, a major skills gap has left nearly every quantum organization struggling to find qualified recruits.
The National Quantum Initiative, signed into law in early 2019, is meant to provide federal funds to bridge this skills gap. But practical training of the sort made possible by the IBM Q Network will be crucial to a long-term solution.
While the quantum era may develop slowly, it’s worth remembering that the Internet—or an early version of it—was around for decades before it was established as the truly revolutionary force it would become. But like the Internet, the work researchers are doing now on quantum computing lead to a world we can’t now imagine.
“Only by doing the hard work on quantum computing that we and our partners around the world are doing now,’’ says Pizzolato, “can we hope to solve the big global problems that we’ll be facing together in the years ahead.’’
*Gartner, Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2019: Quantum Computing, March 2019