Quantum computers are starting to move from the lab to the industry

A new class of powerful computers is about to do something important – some really useful work.

Why is this important: Quantum computers have the potential to solve intractable problems and break unbreakable encryption, but getting them to a point of reliability remains a huge engineering challenge.

  • But companies – and countries – that discover the quantum will take the lead in a new era of computing.

What is happening: Quantum computers – which harness the weird and difficult physics of the quantum world – have seen a number of notable improvements in recent weeks.

  • In November, IBM unveiled its Eagle Quantum Processor, which contains 127 qubits – the quantum equivalent of the bits that drive classical computing – making it the first to cross the 100-qubit barrier.
  • This week, Quantinuum, a new quantum computing company created by the merger of software maker Cambridge Quantum and hardware maker Honeywell Quantum Solutions, announced the world’s first commercial product created solely by a quantum computer: a powerful generator of encryption key.
  • On December 8, quantum computer maker IonQ – one of the few space companies to go public – announced plans to use barium ions as qubits in its systems, which the president and CEO, Peter Chapman, will improve the stability and reliability of his quantum. computers.

In numbers : The global quantum computing market is currently valued at $ 490 million, with annual growth of 21.9%, and is expected to reach nearly $ 1 billion by 2024, according to Bob Sorensen, chief analyst for quantum computing at Hyperion Research.

  • “Hardware is difficult and it takes time for engineering to move from fundamental devices to useful devices,” William Oliver, director of the Center for Quantum Engineering at MIT, said at this week’s Q2B Practical Quantum Computing conference.
  • “But this is happening as quantum transitions shift from laboratory curiosity to technical reality.”

How it works: Conventional computers, from the smallest device to the most powerful supercomputer, perform their calculations through binary manipulation of bits, which can only be in two states: on or off, 1 or 0.

  • Quantum computers use the quantum state of an object to produce qubits. The complex math behind these qubits can be hooked up to special algorithms to perform calculations that would be virtually impossible for a classical computer to perform – a quality known as quantum advantage or supremacy.
  • A functioning quantum computer could theoretically break the internet’s most secure cryptography, solve incredibly complex logistics and optimization problems, or simulate matter and chemistry at an incredibly precise scale.
  • “We can do what is done now better and faster, and we will be able to do things that cannot be done at all now,” said Paul Lipman, president of quantum computing at hardware manufacturer ColdQuanta.

The trap : More qubits should mean more powerful quantum computers, which is why hardware makers frequently tout qubit totals on their latest models. In order for machines to do useful work, they need to keep these qubits in a special quantum state called superposition for as long as possible.

  • But qubits are “very sensitive,” says IBM’s Jerry Chow, and slight changes in temperature or vibration can cause them to lose their quantum state in a process called decoherence, turning qubits into boring old bits.
  • Hardware makers face the challenge of building quantum computers that can add qubits without losing consistency, while software makers must design algorithms that can make the most of what machines can do.
  • As a result, quantum computers may look like a throwback to the early days of classical computing, with hardware makers pursuing multiple directions – trapped ions, neutral atoms, quantum annealing, photonics on silicon – each of which may have different advantages for different applications. .
  • Oliver compared the current state of quantum computers to the Wright Brothers’ first plane. “It was a key step in the flight,” he said, “but it wasn’t like the next day we all went to buy plane tickets.”

Between the lines: Even at this nascent stage, however, corporate clients are accessing quantum computers – usually through the cloud – to solve real business problems.

  • Quantum software makers like Zapata Computing and Multiverse Computing are working with financial companies to better assess derivatives and detect fraud.
  • “For me, quantum advantage isn’t about how we solve a problem,” says Christopher Savoie, CEO and founder of Zapata. “This is how we use quantum to reduce your bottom line costs.”

The bottom line: Improving computing power is the engine of growth in the modern digital economy. It’s still early days for the quantum, but as hardware and software progresses the results could be extraordinary.

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