The latest computer technology being developed by tech giants such as Google and Microsoft means quantum computing is edging closer to becoming a reality. The potential of quantum computing, the theory behind which has been around for 35 years, has long been a dream of physicists and computer scientists. However, it is only now that harnessing the properties of quantum mechanics, which would exponentially speed up computer processing, is becoming a practical reality. It is now thought that enough progress may have been made to apply quantum computing within 5 years – significantly earlier than previously forecast.
Over the next few weeks, both Google and Microsoft are expected to make announcements around their quantum computing research achieving important scientific milestones. Todd Holmdahl, who heads up Microsoft’s quantum team, recently supported the realistic possibility that the latest computer technology may include applicable quantum computing qualities within 5 years. He is quoted by the Financial Times as saying:
“We have an opportunity to solve a set of problems that couldn’t be solved before. On a classic computer they would take the life of the universe to solve”.
Microsoft has been researching quantum computing for 12 years now but have yet to manage to create the basic building block of quantum machines – a quantum bit, or qubit. Holmdahl says the company is now ‘imminently’ close to being able to make the announcement that milestone has been achieved. A classic computing ‘bit’ represents either a 1 or a zero. A qubit can represent both simultaneously. This means two qubits working in unison can allow many parallel computations simultaneously. This has the potential to mean in 5 years or so the latest computer technology could be more than a million times faster than the most powerful machines of today.
Dell achieved a working qubit as far back as in 1998 but the technology Microsoft is working on is different. It’s a big bet but if it proves to be the right direction could fire Microsoft to the front of the quantum computing race. Qubits are very fragile and remain in a quantum state for a tiny period of time. Reading them can interfere with results and this means quantum machines, to be reliable, need to include a huge error-correction facility.
Microsoft’s qubit design fragments electrons so the same information can be held in multiple locations simultaneously. Its integrity isn’t reliant on one qubit so the overall system would be much more stable.
Google, meanwhile, is said to be on the verge of demonstrating a quantum machine solving a problem on the limits of, or beyond, the possibilities of classic computer technology. This milestone is referred to as ‘quantum supremacy’ and is yet to take place. Google is thought to have created a 49-qubit system that solved a problem beyond a classic computer at the end of last year. This will have to be reviewed before a scientific publication can announce the milestone.
The biggest challenge facing Microsoft, Google and other tech giants such as IBM who are heavily invested in the ‘quantum computing race’ is how to scale up and program systems that may need over 1 million qubits to solve complex problems. Keeping these qubits in a quantum state for more than a few micro-seconds is another big hurdle to be overcome as is creating electronic controls can operate in the very cold temperatures necessary for quantum states.
But Microsoft’s Holmdahl believes that when boiled down, the race to mass producible quantum hardware isn’t really any different to other hardware challenges but is what will hold the key to which company takes a lead in the new technology.
When, with ‘if’ now a question largely answered, quantum computing becomes a reality, it would be expected to mark a huge leap forward in science. Molecules could be simulated, which would then lead to breakthrough drugs and machine learning would also become far more powerful. The potential of quantum computing-led scientific breakthroughs would be expected to revolutionise human civilization.