Quantum computing is an experimental technology that could one day revolutionize data analysis and artificial intelligence.
Quantum computing is a term that brings to mind both the world of science fiction and that of esoteric research conducted by scientists in a lab. In reality, however, this technology is beginning to appear in the professional sphere. Just one year ago, IBM announced the launch of its in-house quantum computer for use by third-party companies. It functions as a cloud service called IBM Q Experience. In addition, the IT giant has set up a partnership involving companies, universities and laboratories to promote research into the technology. Although still relatively unpowerful and highly experimental, IBM’s quantum computer is indeed functional and used by large companies, including automobile manufacturer, Daimler and electronics company, Samsung.
What is a quantum computer?
As its name suggests, a quantum computer is based on the principles of quantum mechanics, which applies the laws of nature to the scale of the infinitely small. However, these are different from the physics we observe at our scale. To put it simply, a traditional computer represents information in the binary form of 0 and 1, while a quantum computer can represent information as 0, 1, or both. Without going into more detail, this small difference allows quantum computers to perform much more complex computer operations.
“Problems that would take billions of years to be processed by a conventional computer could be solved in a few minutes with a quantum computer,” says Catherine McGeoch, a computer scientist at D-Wave, a company specializing in the construction of quantum computers. However, she points out that the technology is in its infancy at the moment and does not yet provide this type of performance. While quantum computers have not yet reached their full potential, devices developed by Intel, IBM and Google are now powerful enough to perform operations that are too complex to perform on a traditional computer. This is called quantum supremacy.
“Recent advances in physics and material sciences have brought quantum computing much closer to reality. This, combined with the interest and investments made by different governments, has contributed to a significant increase in the popularity of quantum computing. Let’s not forget investments and advertising made by groups such as Google, Microsoft, Intel, IBM and others,” says William Hurley, an American entrepreneur.
Quantum computing is now a reality
Quantum Technology has generated interest far beyond the circle of American IT giants. Chinese companies, led by Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, are not to be outdone, and the government has planned to invest $10 billion in Quantum in the coming years. Back in North America, Canadian company D-Wave and California startup Rigetti Computing have also begun investing in the technology. Based in Berkeley, California, Rigetti Computing has been exploring the possibilities of quantum computing since 2013, and several startups, such as IonQ, QCI and Alpine Quantum, are following in its footsteps. Many universities around the world, including Yale, MIT, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Oxford University, are also pushing their own research toward the quantum computer.
Despite the progress made by these different entities, quantum computers are far from being as easy to build as traditional computers. Many technical challenges remain. In particular, a quantum computer must be maintained at an extremely cold temperature, close to absolute zero, to maintain its stability. In addition, computer bugs occur more easily and are more difficult to deal with than on a normal computer. This is why the earliest representation of quantum computing in the professional sphere has been presented as a service: the most advanced companies allow clients to use their quantum capacities via the cloud.
IBM Q Experience currently has 80,000 users that together have performed more than 3 million different experiments. Users include companies and researchers. Google has also been offering access to its quantum computer via its cloud service since the summer of 2017. Rigetti Computing aims to become for the quantum computer what Amazon Web Service is to the cloud: a platform that allows any company to easily access quantum computing resources, according to its specific needs. The service has been accessible since December 2017. For the time being, however, the young company is offering its customers free access to its code to help it develop concrete applications. It has also started a $1 million prize pool for the user that builds the best application.
Work remodeled by the quantum computer
Quelles sont les applications possibles dans la sphère professionnelle ?
What are the possible applications of quantum computing in the professional sphere? “Quantum computers will allow us to make sense of the flood of data we generate, and thus solve very interesting problems,” says William Hurley. Indeed, when it comes to navigating through large databases and studying a large number of different possibilities, quantum computers can play an important role. Their use is particularly helpful in data research and in the design of creative solutions such as the discovery of new drugs or the development of new materials. “Quantum computers will be able to model new materials more efficiently than traditional computers. This will open up the possibility to test thousands of different designs, allowing users to choose the best one. This task is currently being carried out by traditional supercomputers, but their quantum counterparts will give more precise results,” predicts Andris Ambainis, a researcher in quantum mechanics and computing at the University of Latvia.
Another area that has to juggle huge amounts of complex data is finance, which could also benefit greatly from the advent of the quantum computer. Thanks to the quantum computer, predictive tasks such as selecting the most promising stock for an investment portfolio, predicting future prices more accurately, determining which stocks are likely to fall and which ones, on the contrary, have the highest probability of soaring, could become much more accurate. IBM already works with several major American banks, including Barclays and JP Morgan Chase. The latter has also brought together a small group of engineers and mathematicians to assess the potential of the quantum computer in areas such as trading or financial risk prediction, using IBM’s cloud service. One of Rigetti’s corporate clients, QxBranch, is developing financial analysis tools based on quantum computing.
In general, the ability of the quantum computer to extract meaning from large amounts of data could have concrete applications in industries as diverse as aviation, commerce or industry. NASA itself uses D-Wave’s quantum computer to optimize the missions of robots sent into space and to Mars. At a time when companies are generating an ever-increasing amount of data, companies capable of effectively analyzing it can make predictions about the future and gain a significant competitive advantage. The quantum computer would make it possible to set up more accurate predictive scenarios, and thus optimize the allocation of time and resources between the various goods and services a company produces.
Towards quantum artificial intelligence
In the end, the democratization of quantum computing could be combined with another advanced technological advancement: artificial intelligence. “The quantum computer could solve many of the problems that are emerging today in machine learning,” says Catherine McGeoch. “There is a natural combination between the intrinsically statistical nature of quantum computing and machine learning,” confided an engineer from Rigetti in Quanta Magazine. Several experiments have already been carried out in this area. Last year, the California Institute of Technology used a quantum computer for an artificial intelligence experiment to observe the Higgs Boson, with conclusive results. The quantum machine achieved a result as accurate as that of a traditional computer, with a smaller amount of data.
In the long term, it may be the Internet itself that quantum computing could transform. For example, Chinese researchers are currently working on a communications project based on quantum computing, which draws on the resources of the technology to increase cybersecurity and neutralize the risks of piracy. If the test is successful, could these networks pave the way for a more efficient and secure quantum internet? However promising quantum computing may or may not be, the Internet as we know it has a bright future ahead of it.