IBM make strides in quantum computing

We're gonna need a bigger brain...
15 December 2023

Quantum computing – the way of the future.

• Quantum computing uses electrons rather than transistors, for a much more rapid solution to complex problems.
• There’s every likelihood that the technology will be able to rapidly reduce current encryptions to dust.
• The quantum race is largely between China and a handful of western companies.

We may be on the verge of revolutionary AI problem-solving with news of IBM’s quantum computing advancements. (We say “may” in tribute to Werner Heisenberg and his famous principle, and because nothing since has ever been entirely certain in the quantum world).

We are living in a golden age of artificial intelligence, with innovations seemingly bombarding us every day. The trend has continued with IBM announcing advancements in a new kind of computing that is capable of solving extraordinarily complex problems in just a few minutes.

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

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

Welcome to the wonderful world of quantum.

Quantum computing is a technology being developed by companies like IBM and Google.  Operating in a fundamentally different way to classical computing, it relies 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 without question changing the world.

A new age of computing

Everything we know is pushed to the limits with quantum computing. From science to finances and from AI to computational 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 tackle previously unsolvable problems, and impact many fields worldwide. It presents a paradigm shift akin to the introduction of classical computing, though in comparison, quantum computing’s possibilities are on a vastly different and exponentially more powerful scale.

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

“It feels to us like the pioneers of the 1940s and 50s that were building the first digital computers,” he said. It’s plain to see how much impact digital computers have had on the world since the 1950s, but quantum computing is another kettle of deeply unusual fish.

“We are now at a stage where we can do certain calculations with these systems that would take the biggest supercomputers in the world to do,” Gill explained. But the potential of this technology is only just being realized. The goal is to continue the expansion of quantum computing capabilities, so that “not even a million or a billion of those supercomputers connected together could do the calculations of these future machines.”

Quantum computing by IBM.

A quantum computer from IBM – the future appears to be agreeably steampunk.

We have already witnessed significant progress 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 in place for further advancements. That means the rate of progress is only expected to accelerate – possibly at a pace that will surprise the world.

Today, computers process information on transistors, something they have done since the advent of the transistor switch in 1947. Over time, however, the speed and capabilities of computers have increased substantially. This is due to the continuous advancement of technology. This enhancement stems from the strategy of densely integrating an increasing number of transistors onto a single chip, reaching a scale of billions of transistors in today’s computer chips.

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

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

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

The quantum computing race

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

America has approximately 180 private firms researching quantum computing, most of which fund themselves. The US also has a number of government initiatives investing heavily in quantum research. Along with IBM, Google, and Microsoft, institutions including NASA, DARPA, and NIST are at the forefront of quantum computing and technology development.

Quantum Computing - latest developments.

Quantum computing – bringing the sci-fi home.

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

The US government currently spends close to $1 billion a year on quantum research, whereas China has named quantum as a top national priority. New standards for encryption are to be published by the US in 2024, something that will cause waves (or potentially particles) in the quantum field.

Quantum computing - biggest revolution since the machine that cracked Enigma?

If you’re looking for revolutions in computing as big as quantum, you’re probably looking back to the machine that cracked the Enigma code…

The winner of this quantum race will have striking implications, as Kaku believes the nation or company that succeeds “will rule the world economy.”

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

Quantum computing challenges

As we immerse ourselves in quantum computing’s promising possibilities and how it is a savior to all of humanity’s problems, we must not forget the challenges it also faces. For instance, coherence times need to be enhanced and machines require scaling up to operate effectively with quantum computing.

Hartmut Neven, founder and manager of Google’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab, believes that small improvements and effective integration of existing pieces 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 achieve significant progress in quantum computing over the next five or six years. He believes that quantum computing holds the key to solving problems in fields like chemistry, physics, medicine, and engineering that classical computers are currently, and will always, be incapable of. “You actually require a different way to represent information and process information. That’s what quantum gives you,” he explained.

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

The development of quantum computing is accelerating at an exponential rate. Over the next decade or so, Dario Gil sees no reason why quantum computing can expand to thousands of qubits. He believes that systems will be built “that will have tens of thousands and even a 100 thousand qubits working with each other.” Where quantum technology goes from here is (thank you, Werner!) distinctly uncertain, but if the excitement is anything to go by, it may potentially have the answers to all the world’s problems.

The Quantum System Two. Scary cool computing power.