The latest Quantum Computing trends from 5th Annual Conference on Quantum Technologies, Moscow
Cian Walsh is 20 year veteran of the design industry with a focus on improving products for everyday users. He is the founder of Marine User Experience producing innovative designs for ocean and coastal users.
All inevitable technologies like electricity and transistors started off as research efforts that were not even visible to the outside world. But like a distant wave on the horizon, the slow movement belied the impact once it arrived.
Those present at the 5th Annual Conference on Quantum Technologies in Moscow were treated to a similar preview of a coming technological epoch. While quantum computing is of fringe interest to today’s mainstream society, an impressive array of academic, corporate and government interests gathered in Moscow, Russia in mid-July.
Organised by the Russian Quantum Center, this event is held in Moscow every two years gathering global physicists, Nobel laureates, entrepreneurs and investors. This year 1300 participants from 20 countries spent a week in technical lectures, student presentations and keynotes. As well as the assorted academics, the heavyweights of Google, IBM and Airbus were showing their efforts to jumpstart the business potential of quantum computing.
— Cian Walsh (@illustratedicon) July 17, 2019
QUANTUM COMPUTING 101
At its most basic, quantum computing is a new way of thinking about calculations.
Current computers (lovingly referred to as classical computing by quantum physicists) operate on the basis of 0’s and 1’s. Binary states where we calculate by something being true or false. This certainty has allowed us to build vast combinations of silicon in an effort to compute today’s pressing issues. But as we scaled down chips on silicon, scientists and technicians started to encounter the spooky world of quantum mechanics. At atomic and subatomic levels, the laws of classical physics are superseded by quantum mechanics.
In the quantum world, these bits are replaced by quantum bits (qubits) which have the fascinating ability to be in any state between 0 and 1.
These qubits are combined in a process of quantum entanglement. This entanglement allows for qubits to react simultaneously in a way that shouldn’t be possible based on conventional understanding. But this unconventional phenomena allows for processors to be built from these qubits in much the same manner as we place more transistors together on a chip to increase processing power.
But these qubits instead of sitting on silicon might be plucked with lasers like a guitar string to detect quantum states. The approach of quantum startup IONQ. Or if you are Google, you might build an artificial atom out of superconductor materials. Or use silicon to control quantum dots like in the case of Intel .
Varying approaches to quantum computing were still widely discussed, but with the realisation that only through sharing approaches and healthy competition would theories become fact. The tantalising advantage of quantum computing is hard to deny. At its essence we can identify classical computing as using a repeat and fail approach where searching a maze would involve trying each possible exit and readjusting when it fails. Quantum’s great leap in thinking is to be able to test all possible exits at the same time.
Google is one of the corporate companies who realise the profound effect a functioning quantum computer could have on its business and others. As head of Google’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence lab Harmut Neven stated.
“Quantum computing is powerful because it harnesses Nature’s propensity to explore all possible configurations of an object and all paths along which it can evolve”.
So searching through a million drawers for a tennis ball could require a million operations with a classical computing search, but a quantum computer can execute multiple operations simultaneously. It’ could be done in a fraction of the operations.
— Cian Walsh (@illustratedicon) July 18, 2019
It would seem then that with all the gathered forces of academia, corporate research budgets and government interest, it would only be a matter of time before we reach a breakthrough.
But from the discussion amongst the 2019 conference delegates, the world of quantum computing is still reaching for the elusive state of Quantum Supremacy. It’s the term used to denote that the quantum computers are demonstrably better at a task than a classical computer.
What task? There is much discussion about what that could constitute? There may be a purely mathematical test where a quantum computer could best a classical computer. But for the rest of society to be attracted, we would have to see something that resonates with today’s problems. IONQ’S CEO Chris Monroe stated “Investors want a path to something interesting”. Capturing the public’s imagination and VC funding still seems to be one of the hurdles the quantum computing field needs to wrestle with alongside all the differing technical hurdles.
Even cooling qubits to ten times the coldness of interstellar space like Google’s “Bristlecone” effort, the computing power of these devices is counted in the dozens of qubits. Vigorous debate stemmed from what would be a qubit amount that could take on the task of Quantum Supremacy with numbers such as 50 being seen as a starting point.
A succinct explanation from Google’s Harmut Neven. “Quantum computing is powerful because it harnesses Nature’s propensity to explore all possible configurations of an object and all paths along which it can evolve”. #ICC2019 pic.twitter.com/UFJ5X0RzJW
— Cian Walsh (@illustratedicon) July 18, 2019
IMPACT ON SOCIETY
Quantum’s possible effect on society was laid out by such and such of on the Open Day seminar. The Russian Quantum Center wisely saw the benefit in briefing the general public alongside the technical discussions. Ruslan Yunusov, CEO of the Russian Quantum Center sees it as an event “that is made to connect the young people of the world interested in quantum technology.”
Classical computing is reaching it’s capacity and the global energy for tech is unsustainable seeing as every Google search currently consumes about 0.2 grams of greenhouse gas.
Certain early movers in the quantum space such as D-Wave are already offering commercial products with their Pegasus Next Generation Platform set to debut soon promising a 5000 qubit system.
Grant Waterfall of Price Waterhouse Coopers was able to identify the disruption inherent in these quantum devices. Industries from cybersecurity, machine learning, drug discovery, material science and finance are all vulnerable to having existing business models upended. How would you implement cryptographic protection against a quantum device that could calculate all possible scenarios? The prospect of unleashing technological changes this profound didn’t go unchallenged at the conference. But IBM’s Charles Bennett considered that it was still too early to judge “Quantum technology is too immature to consider all ethical consequences. Any big tech change has technological and ethical consequences.”
It becomes obvious why certain industries would have taken an interest in the quantum world even at this nascent stage. Volkswagen are already using quantum computation to fight Bejing traffic and boost battery research.
As of August 2019 the quantum world is still grappling with many questions. Quantum computing systems require complex cooling to get qubits into pliable states. Even then, the systems are brittle with some systems being hard to control while other approaches are difficult to scale. The real world advantages of the technology are still difficult to explain given the maturity of classical computing.
But once the quantum wave does arrive, it will be as profoundly powerful to society as the move from abacus to silicon computing.
Photo Credits – Russian Quantum Center / Cian Walsh
— Cian Walsh (@illustratedicon) April 25, 2019
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