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Quantum Computing Becomes a Real Technology
Quantum Computing Becomes a Real Technology
Researchers are close to building quantum computers powerful enough to do those things that conventional computers cannot dubbed "quantum supremacy."
Technology Briefing

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As we've chronicled for over a decade-and-a-half, quantum computers are coming, but it will take a while.

That's important, because they promise to run calculations far beyond the reach of any conventional supercomputer. For instance, they could revolutionize the discovery of new materials by making it possible to simulate the behavior of matter down to the atomic level. Or they could upend cryptography and security by cracking otherwise invincible codes. There is even hope they will supercharge artificial intelligence by crunching through data more efficiently. 

Yet only now, after decades of gradual progress, are researchers finally close to building quantum computers powerful enough to do those things that conventional computers cannot. It's a landmark somewhat theatrically dubbed "quantum supremacy." That's the point at which a quantum computer can do calculations beyond the reach of today's fastest supercomputers.  

Right now, Google is leading the charge toward this milestone, while Intel and Microsoft also have significant quantum efforts. And then there are well-funded startups including Rigetti Computing, IonQ, and Quantum Circuits.

Collectively, they are pursuing at least five major quantum computing approaches:
  • silicon spin qubits
  • ion traps
  • superconducting loops
  • diamond vacancies
  • topological qubits
In the February 2018 Trends issue, we profiled an academic consortium involving European, American, and Australian researchers developing hardware based on silicon spin qubits. That work is particularly exciting because it avoids exotic materials requiring huge support infrastructure, and relies on unique, super-cooled silicon chips that should be mass-producible and highly cost-effective. Their idea is to substitute a few qubits that must all work perfectly, with millions of qubits that are mutually "error correcting."

However, no contender can match IBM's pedigree in this quantum computing research. Starting 50 years ago, the company produced advances in materials science that laid the foundations for a quantum computer revolution. 

In early March 2018, Google unveiled Bristlecone, a new quantum computing chip with 72 qubits. The previous record holder was 50-qubit processor announced by IBM last year. John Martinis, who heads Google's effort, says his team still needs to do more testing, but he thinks it's "pretty likely" that in just a few months, the new chip can finally achieve "quantum supremacy." 

Meanwhile, Microsoft's research is focused on so-called topological qubits, which it claims to be the only scalable quantum computing technology. It's quantum research center is called "Station Q." Microsoft says, "Our approach uses topological qubits specifically for their higher accuracy, lower cost, and ability to perform long enough to solve complex real-world problems" Microsoft is already developing ways to use quantum computing technology to augment its existing Azure platform.

And it's busily working on applications in physics, materials science, circuit design, and industrial controls. Finally, it is developing a quantum Systems Development Tool Kit for enterprise-level developers. This focus on the pragmatic aspects of implementing quantum computing may put Microsoft in a very strong position, if its topological qubits live up to the hype.

Why? Because it's not enough to simply build a machine. As difficult as building quantum computing hardware has been, the challenge of creating practical real-world algorithms may be even tougher. Fortunately, the rapid advance of the hardware has now sparked increased interest on the software side. And other companies are likely to mirror Microsoft's early focus on deployment issues.

Given this Trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.

First, quantum computing is a field in which millennial and Gen-Z researchers will dominate.

As top IBM quantum algorithm researcher Jay Gambetta observes, "the revolution will not really begin until a new generation of students and hackers get to play with practical machines. Quantum computers require not just different programming languages but a fundamentally different way of thinking about what programming is."

This process got a "jump-start in 2016, when IBM connected a small quantum computer to the cloud. Using a programming tool kit called QISKit, anyone can run simple programs on it; thousands of people, from academic researchers to schoolkids, have built QISKit programs that run basic quantum algorithms. Now Google and other companies are also putting their nascent quantum computers online. You can't do much with them, but at least they give people outside the leading labs a taste of what may be coming.

Second, the ongoing shift from industrial and university labs to real-world start-ups will transform quantum computing from a research project into a business.
The venture capital and startup communities are already getting excited. As reported in MIT Technology Review, the University of Toronto's business school recently hosted a "pitch competition" for quantum startups.

Teams of entrepreneurs nervously got up and presented their ideas to a group of professors and investors. One company hoped to use quantum computers to model the financial markets. Another planned to have them design new proteins. Yet another wanted to build more advanced AI systems. And,  

Third, quantum computing is realistically about 10-years away from becoming a mainstream technology.

Huge info-tech companies, universities and some entrepreneurs will be well-served by keeping their fingers on the pulse of this technology. Those with accumulated intellectual capital will be able to surge forward when software and hardware emerge. But according to the Gartner Group, quantum computing still has a long way to go before any but the most leading-edge companies can benefit. As with so many breakthroughs, enthusiasm for quantum computing is likely to sour when the first quantum computers prove slow to find practical uses.

The first challenge is to fabricate and manage large numbers of qubits. That milestone will take the new industry to "the peak of euphoria." Then, once the lack of off-the-shelf applications becomes clear, it will descend into the "Trough of Disillusionment." And, only then, will entrepreneurs and investors get the big pay-off on the "Plateau of Productivity." The Trends editors see this happening around 2030.
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