March 4, 2024

What is IBM doing in the race towards quantum computing?

• Quantum computing uses electrons instead of transistors, for a much faster solution to complex problems.
• It is very likely that technology could quickly reduce current encryption to dust.
• The quantum race is largely between China and a handful of Western companies.

We may be on the verge of a revolutionary AI problem-solving with news of IBM’s quantum computing breakthroughs. (We say “may” in homage to Werner Heisenberg and his famous principle, and because since then nothing has been completely secure in the quantum world.)

We live in a golden age of artificial intelligence, where innovations seem to bombard us every day. The trend has continued with IBM announcing advances in a new type of computing that is capable of solving extraordinarily complex problems in just a few minutes.

Why is this news? Surely that’s what all computers do?

Yes, but today’s supercomputers would need millions of years to solve problems as complex as those IBM is making progress on.

Welcome to the wonderful world of quantum.

Quantum computing is a technology developed by companies such as IBM and Google. It operates in a fundamentally different way to classical computing and is based on quantum bits (qubits) and principles including superposition and entanglement. As the name suggests, quantum physics is an intrinsic part of quantum computing. We may even need a quantum computer to explain how this type of computing works, but this technology is certainly changing the world.

A new era of computing

Everything we know is pushed to the limit with quantum computing. From science to finance and from artificial intelligence to computing power, this “supercomputer” offers the potential for solutions to problems that are currently intractable for classical computers.

The revolutionary nature of quantum computing lies in its potential to transform problem-solving approaches. It has the potential to address previously unsolvable problems and impact many fields around the world. It presents a similar paradigm shift to the introduction of classical computing, although in comparison, the possibilities of quantum computing are on a very different scale and exponentially more powerful.

IBM research director Dario Gill believes that quantum computing will have a significant impact on the world, but that society is not yet ready for such changes.

“We felt like the pioneers of the 1940s and 1950s who were building the first digital computers,” he said. It’s easy to see how much impact digital computers have had on the world since the 1950s, but quantum computing is another pot of deeply unusual fish.

“We are now at a stage where we can do certain calculations with these systems that would require the largest supercomputers in the world,” Gill explained. But the potential of this technology is only fair being carried out. The goal is to continue the expansion of quantum computing capabilities, so that “not even a million or a billion of these interconnected supercomputers can do the calculations of these machines of the future.”

An IBM quantum computer: the future looks pleasantly steampunk.

We have already witnessed significant advances in this field of technology, but the difference now is that Dario Gill and others working in the quantum field have a clear plan or strategy for future advances. That means the pace of progress is expected to accelerate, possibly at a pace that surprises the world.

Today, computers process information on transistors, something they have done since the advent of the transistor switch in 1947. However, over time, the speed and capabilities of computers have increased substantially. This is due to the continuous advancement of technology. This improvement arises from the strategy of densely integrating an increasing number of transistors on a single chip, reaching a scale of billions of transistors in current computer chips.

Computers require billions of transistors because they are in the “on” or “off” state. Known as complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology, quantum computing now presents alternatives to this hallmark of classical computing.

Instead of using transistors, quantum computing encodes information and data into electrons. These particles, thanks to the rules of quantum mechanics, can exist in multiple states simultaneously, like a coin spinning in the air. At the same time, it shows heads and tails aspects. Unlike traditional computing methods, which deal with one bit of data at a time on a transistor, quantum computing uses qubits. These can store and process exponentially more information due to their ability to exist in multiple states at once.

Classical computers require a step-by-step process when searching for information or solving problems. Quantum computers, on the other hand, are capable of finding solutions much faster by handling numerous possibilities at the same time.

The quantum computing race

Like any emerging technology, countries around the world are competing for quantum supremacy. Currently, private free enterprises and state-led communism are the main competitors. In other words, the race is “between China, on the one hand, and IBM, Google, Microsoft, [and] Honeywell,” according to physicist Michio Kaku. These are the “big guys” of quantum computing.

The United States has approximately 180 private companies researching quantum computing, most of which are self-funded. The United States also has a number of government initiatives that invest heavily in quantum research. Along with IBM, Google and Microsoft, institutions such as NASA, DARPA and NIST are at the forefront of technological development and quantum computing.

Quantum computing: latest advances.

Quantum computing: bringing science fiction home.

China has been making significant investments in quantum research and development for several years. For example, it has several state-backed initiatives and research institutions, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, working on quantum technology. Large corporations, including Alibaba and Huawei, are also involved in quantum computing research.

The US government currently spends about $1 billion a year on quantum research, while China has named quantum as a top national priority. The United States will publish new encryption standards in 2024, something that will cause ripples (or potentially particles) in the quantum field.

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The winner of this quantum race will have surprising implications, as Kaku believes that the nation or company that triumphs will “rule the global economy.”

Think OpenAI and ChatGPT, but with the potential to crack any code, open any safe, and of course demand any price.

Challenges of quantum computing

As we dive into the promising possibilities of quantum computing and how it saves all of humanity’s problems, we must not forget the challenges it also faces. For example, coherence times need to be improved and machines need to be scaled up to work effectively with quantum computing.

Hartmut Neven, founder and director of Google’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, believes that small improvements and effective integration of existing parts are key to building larger quantum systems. “We need little improvements here and there. “If we have all the pieces together, we just need to integrate them well to build larger and larger systems.”

Neven and his team aim to make significant advances in quantum computing over the next five or six years. He believes that quantum computing is the key to solving problems in fields such as chemistry, physics, medicine and engineering that classical computers are, and always will be, incapable of solving. “In reality, you need a different way of representing information and processing it. That is what quantum gives you,” he explained.

Further challenges remain due to the delicate nature of qubits, which are prone to errors and interference from the surrounding environment. As James Tyrrell discusses here, efforts are being made to mitigate this noise and improve the reliability of quantum computers. The expansion of the QCaaS (Quantum Computing as a Service) ecosystem is expected to shift the focus from technical complexities to practical applications. Potentially, this will allow users to harness the power of quantum computing for solving real-world problems.

The development of quantum computing is accelerating at an exponential rate. Over the next decade, Darío Gil sees no reason why quantum computing could expand to thousands of qubits. He believes that systems will be built “that will have tens of thousands and even 100 thousand qubits working together.” The direction of quantum technology from now on is (thanks, Werner!) clearly uncertain, but if enthusiasm is anything to go by, it may hold the answers to all the world’s problems.

The quantum system two. Terrifying and cool computing power.

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