Europe is to get its first quantum computer, after it was announced Germany’s state-backed Fraunhofer research unit will act as custodian of a machine built by IBM. The Q System One computer, which is 9 ft tall, will be installed and operational from early next year at Fraunhofer facilities near to Stuttgart.
The quantum computer, seen as key to European research into how to best harness quantum computing power, will be entrusted to Fraunhofer to stay on the right side of the EU’s strict policies on data sovereignty. However, Germany and the EU has come to the conclusion that it cannot risk Europe being left behind when it comes to the development of quantum computing skills and capacity.
Professor Reimund Neugebauer, president of the Fraunhofer research institute explains the potential power that quantum computing is expected to harness once the technology, and how to efficiently use it, is refined in coming years:
“Quantum computing has the potential to analyse the complex systems in business and industry, to unravel molecular and chemical interactions, to solve complicated optimisation problems and to make artificial intelligence significantly more powerful.”
Quantum computers have exponentially higher processing power than today’s computers. While normal computers run on ‘bits’ of 1 and 0, quantum machines are able to maintain bits in a dual state which means they are both a 1 and 0 at the same time.
This ‘superposition’ of qubits means quantum computers embody inherent parallelism, which allows them to work a million computations simultaneously. Even the best desktop PC can only work on one. A quantum computer’s processing power is the equivalent to a traditional computer running at 10 teraflops, which means trillions of ‘floating point’ operations per second. That compares to billions for today’s computers, whose power is measured in gigaflops.
Scientists are still working on how to maintain enough qubits for long enough to really unleash the processing power they are expected to be capable of. But even today’s early prototype machines, like IBM’s Q System One, can perform specific tasks at many times the speed of the most powerful standard computers.
While mainstream use of the machines is still several years away due to their cost and experimental stage of development, they are already being used in specific circumstances. Last year Mercedes-Benz manufacturer Daimler used quantum computing in the design of next gen lithium batteries for electric vehicles. The computers were able to simulate the complex chemistry of the lithium cells.
The Fraunhofer/IBM initiative has come about after a conversation between outgoing IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. Merkel had been of the opinion that quantum computing technology was still many years away but was quickly convinced of the need for Europe to get onboard now.
While IBM allows international researchers and governments to use its quantum computers via Cloud computing, increasingly strict EU data laws make this problematic. That led to the decision to bring a machine to Germany instead. The German government has said it will invest €650m in quantum computing.
It’s considered key to national security due to the implications of quantum computing on cryptography. If Europe doesn’t have quantum computing resources and experts, its IT infrastructure could quickly become vulnerable to any hackers with access.
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