The scientific community is finally seeing the development of serious quantum machines.
However, the main question that is now on everyone’s mind is how to best use these machines.
About 80 kilometers north of the city of New York, in the lush countryside, there is a small laboratory.
Inside that laboratory, there exists a rather elaborate and complex tangle of electronics and tubes dangling from the laboratory’s ceiling.
At first, it is hard to notice that the above-mentioned mess of various equipment is nothing but a computer.
And not just any simple regular computer.
It is a computer which is on the verge of not only reaching but also passing what many, perhaps, would consider as one of the most significant scientific milestones in the long history of the quantum computing field.
Of course, this is a quantum computer.
According to most experts on the subject matter, quantum computers would have the necessary power to promise running calculations which are currently far beyond the practical reach of regular computers.
By regular computers, we mean conventional supercomputers.
Quantum computers on their own have given computer scientist enough indications that they might just revolutionize the way they discover new materials.
How would they do that?
Well, quantum computers could potentially make it possible for scientists to simulate the actual behavior of a given matter right down to its atomic level.
Quantum computer could also help scientists to upend security and cryptography by cracking open codes which are otherwise invincible.
Some even hope that quantum computers would successfully supercharge machine learning and artificial intelligence by allow machines to crunch through vast amounts of data more quickly and efficiently.
Despite that potential, it has taken researchers many decades consisting of gradual progress to come close to building a quantum computer machine which is powerful enough to actually carry out tasks and do things which conventional machines, theoretically, can’t do.
Some are considering it a landmark and have theatrically dubbed the progress as quantum supremacy.
As far as the milestone of developing quantum computers which can help the world’s problem goes, Google has taken the lead.
Other technology companies such as Microsoft and Intel have also managed to fund their own quantum computing efforts.
Apart from that, there are many other startups with good funding sources including the likes of Quantum Circuits along with IonQ and Rigetti Computing.
However, there is hardly a contender that has the ability to match IBM’s pedigree in the field of developing supercomputers to solve problems.
IBM started the process of building advanced computers about some 50 years ago.
It produced many of the important advances in the field of material science which laid the initial foundations for a new computer revolution.
That is the reason why, around October of last year, some reporters made their way to the IBM Thomas J.Watson Research Center in order to try and answer questions related to quantum computing.
Questions such as, what would a quantum computer be good at if anything at all.
Moreover, can a reliable and practical quantum computer even be built one day?
Why is there even a need for quantum computers?
In Yorktown Heights, there is a research center.
Some believe it looks pretty similar to a flying saucer as an architect imagined a flying saucer back in the 60s.
A neo-futurist architect by the name of Eero Saarinen actually designed that the research center.
The actual researcher center got built during the company’s (IBM) heyday as the number one manufacturer and distributor of big mainframe business computers.
That also made IBM the largest computer company in the whole world.
Moreover, just within 10 years of constructing the research center in Yorktown Heights, IBM had managed to become the fifth-largest business/company of any kind in the world.
It came just behind General Electric and Ford.
And while if one looks at the construction of the building, the hallways inside it actually look out to the vast countryside in the surroundings, the actual design sort of dictates that one of the present offices inside the building have any kind of windows.
Some have even termed these offices as nothing but cloistered rooms.
And this is where Charles Bennett meets reporters to give interviews.
Charles has now entered his 70s.
He wears black socks along with sandals and has huge white sideburns.
Charles also sports a neat pocket protector in order to keep his pens in place.
Most of the times, Charles surrounds himself with old computer monitors along with tiny disco balls and chemistry models.
In the past, reporters have recalled how Charles recalls the birth of the discipline of quantum computing as if it happened just yesterday.
Charles Bennett joined the company (IBM) back in 1972.
Back then, quantum physics had only been around for about 50 years.
However, as far as computing went, it still relied on the mathematical theory of information and classical physics which Claude Shannon of MIT had developed back in the 50s,
Of course, Shannon was the one who managed to successfully define a given quantity of information in terms of bits or rather number of bits that were required in order to store that given quantity of information.
Shannon did popularize the term “bits”.
But he did not coin the term.
Those “bits” of information, all the zeros and the ones of binary code, managed to become the basis of everything that community knew about conventional computing.
Bennett arrived at Yorktown Heights and within a year of joining the company, he helped to lay the initial foundation for a theory about quantum information.
His theory would try and challenge all the existing conventional computing concepts.
His quantum information theory actually heavily relies on successfully exploiting the very peculiar behavior of physical objects at a very small scale called the atomic scale.
At the atomic scale, a given particle has the ability to exist superposed in several different states at any given time.
One example is the atomic particle existing in several different positions at the same time.
Moreover, two particles at the atomic scale are also able to exhibit entanglement.
What does that mean?
That means a change to the state of a given atomic level object may affect other atomic level objects instantaneously.
Researchers in the field including Charles Bennett quickly came to the realization that quite a few types of computations which were exponentially more time consuming than other problems and sometimes could present impossible computation problems, could actually be performed efficiently with the assistance of the newly-discovered quantum phenomena.
One way in which a quantum computer is different from a conventional computer is that it stores information in qubits, or quantum bits.
And the thing about Qubits is that they have no problem in existing in superpositions of 0 and 1.
Researchers can make use of a trick they call interference with entanglement in order to find the precise solution to a given computation problem over an exponentially larger number of states.
With that said, it is also true that researchers find it annoyingly hard to actually compare classical and quantum computers.
However, roughly speaking, according to some, a quantum machine has the ability to simultaneously perform, with only a couple of hundred qubits, more calculations than the number of atoms in the currently known universe.
Back in the summer of the year 1981, MIT along with IBM cooperated with each other to organize to landmark event.
They called the event the First Conference on the Physics of Computation.
MIT and IBM held the event at Endicott House which was a French-style mansion a short distance away from the university campus of MIT.
Charles Bennett managed to take a photo at the conference and in the photo he had a multiple number of the most significant figures from the illustrious history of quantum physics and computing standing on the lawn.
One of the figures in the photo was Konrad Zuse.
Zuse had developed the very first programmable computer.
The photo also had Richard Feynman who is widely considered as an important contributor to the field of quantum theory.
The conference’s keynote speech was given by Feynman.
In the speech, Feynman tried to raise the concept of computing by making use of various quantum effects.
Bennett told reporters that Feynman actually gave the quantum information theory its biggest boost in the beginning.
He also said that Feynman considered nature to be quantum.
And hence if the scientific community wanted to simulate nature, they needed a quantum computer.
Just a handful of steps down the hall directly from Bennett’s office one could locate IBM’s very own quantum computer.
Researchers in the field consider it to be the most promising one in existence.
They have designed the machine to create and also manipulate the fundamental element in any given quantum computer.
That element is qubit.
As mentioned before, qubits are the things that store information.
There is a gap between the reality and the dream
The above-mentioned IBM quantum machine, in reality, exploits the quantum phenomena which occurs in materials that are superconductive.
To take an example, sometimes it is possible that the current would actually flow clockwise as well as anticlockwise simultaneously.
The IBM quantum computer machine makes use of the superconducting circuits in order to have two separate and distinct electromagnetic energy states.
These energy states actually make up the above-mentioned information-storing qubit.
Researchers have also identified a couple of key advantages when one takes the approach of using superconducting materials.
The first advantage is that researchers can have manufacturers develop hardware by using only the well-established and well-understood manufacturing methods.
The second advantage is that researchers can make use of conventional computers in order to control the new system.
Superconducting circuits have qubits working in them and researchers find it easier to manipulate them.
The qubits are also relatively less delicate when compared to individual ions and/or photons.
If one takes a deeper look inside the quantum lab that IBM established, quantum computing engineers are hard at work to come up with a new version of the current quantum computer.
A version that can make use of 50 qubits.
There is little doubt that a user could actually run a simulation of a specific quantum computer with the use of nothing but a normal computer, however, when a quantum computer has the capacity to make use of 50 qubits, this is when it becomes almost impossible for a normal computer to simulate a quantum computer.
What does that mean for the company, IBM?
It means that the company is fast approach a theoretical point where it can have a quantum computer solve a problem that a given classical machine has no chance of solving ever.
This is what some researchers have termed as quantum supremacy.
However, as some researcher working at IBM would tell anyone, they still find the concept of quantum supremacy an elusive one.
Because in order to have a quantum computer out-calculate a conventional computer machine, it would require at least 50 qubits.
That we already mentioned.
What we did not mention was that those 50 qubits would need to work absolutely perfectly in order to reach the “impossible potential” researchers want quantum computers to reach.
The reality is that errors still beset quantum computers.
And researchers have no options but to make corrections for those errors.
What researchers have also found out is that it is rather devilishly hard to actually maintain qubits in a given quantum machine for any reasonable length of time.
In other words, qubits tend to move towards decoherence.
In even more simpler terms, qubits tend to lose their quantum nature which is delicate, to begin with.
This is pretty similar to what happens to a smoke ring when even the slightest air current breaks it up.
Moreover, researchers have also found that the greater the number of qubits, the harder it becomes for them to overcome both of the above-mentioned challenges.
A professor at Yale University and also the founder of Quantum Circuits (a company), Robert Schoelkopf recently said that if one had fifty or even 100 qubits and if one was able to have them work very well with each other and even managed to correct all the errors fully, one could carry out unfathomable calculations.
According to Robert, researchers would never have the option of replicating those calculations on any given classical machine.
Robert also mentioned that there was a flip side to the machines that researchers were calling quantum computers.
That flipside was that quantum computers provided researchers with exponential ways for all of it to go horribly wrong.
One other reason why researchers such as Robert call for caution when talking about quantum machines is that currently, it is not even obvious to them how useful quantum computers could or would be even if researchers had it functioning perfectly.
For clarity’s sake, quantum computers don’t simply speed up any given task that researchers may throw at the machine.
In reality, there are many current applications where quantum computers would actually be slightly slower than existing classical computer machines.
Researchers, so far, have only managed to devise a few algorithms where a given quantum machine would outperform a classical machine and/or have a clear edge over it.
Additionally, even for such situations, that quantum supremacy edge may just be very short-lived.
Peter Short of MIT, so far, has developed the most popular quantum computer algorithm.
And it deals with taking an integer and findings its prime factors.
The majority of the cryptographic schemes do nothing but rely on a simple fact that it is impossibly hard for a given conventional computer machine to crack it.
However, even if quantum computers did cause problems to such cryptographic schemes, the cryptography community could simply adapt.
It could potentially new types of security codes which do away with the need to rely on integer factorization.
As it turns out, this is also the reason why IBM researchers, even though they are nearing the stage where a quantum computer can make use of 50 qubits, are very keen to quickly dispel and all hype around quantum computers.
An Australian researcher with an interest in potential quantum applications for various IBM hardware and algorithms, Jay Gambetta, recently said that the community had reached a unique stage.
Taking great care in selecting his words, he said that quantum researcher had this device which was more complicated than what researchers could simulate on any given classical machine.
However, according to Jat Gambetta, quantum computers were not yet controllable.
At least not to the precision that researchers could develop algorithms which they knew how to develop.
Researchers at IBM have hope.
And for good reason.
They believe that even a given quantum computer, which did not work to absolute perfection, could provide a lot of benefits to their work.
Other researchers along with Gambetta have managed to zero in on one specific application which back in the year 1981 Feynman himself envisioned.
Properties of materials along with the chemical reactions involved were usually determined by all the interactions between molecules and atoms.
The quantum phenomena, in reality, governed those interactions.
At least from a theoretical perspective, a quantum computer could model such interactions in a way a given conventional computer machine could not.
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