Over the past 50 years, the power of computers has grown exponentially as the size of transistors has decreased. This has been characterised by ‘Moore’s law’ which states that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every 18 to 24 months.
However, there is now some evidence that Moore’s law is beginning to slow down. Does a new type of computing, quantum computing, offer the opportunity to continue the exponential growth in computing power by harnessing the power of quantum mechanics?
What is a quantum computer and what can it be used for?
A classical computer stores information as ‘bits’ which can exist in one state at a time, either a 1 or 0. In contrast, quantum computers store information as ‘qubits’ which can exist as superposition of both states simultaneously. Quantum computers exploit this property to run millions of computations simultaneously which results in them being able to solve certain types of problems significantly quicker when compared to classical computers.
It’s important to note that quantum computers will not make classical computers obsolete, but instead will offer quicker, more detailed solutions to problems that classical computers particularly struggle with today. These areas include:
- Optimisation problems – This type of problem involves finding the best possible solution from all of the feasible solutions, and particularly applies to areas such as logistics and the financial services.
- Quantum cryptography – Quantum computers are also strong enough to break existing encryption and can be used to send theoretically unbreakable communications. This are is of particularly interest to major world governments, particularly China and the US.
- Data modelling/forecasting – Quantum computers would provide significant advancements in the fields of data analytics and data modelling/forecasting. This has particularly positive implications for areas within AI such as computer vision and robotics.
- Quantum random number generation – Quantum computers can produce truly random numbers. This is particularly useful in areas such as gambling, statistical sampling, computer simulation and cryptography.
How far away is quantum computing?
The main aim of quantum computing research is to reach what’s called ‘quantum supremacy’. This is the point where quantum computers are able to perform tasks that classical computers are not able to complete in a realistic time frame.
Google claimed to have achieved this feat in October 2019, when they said they had completed a random sampling problem in 3 minutes and 20 seconds that would take a classical computer around 10,000 years. This was disputed by other scientists at IBM but it is likely that companies will display further examples of quantum supremacy over the next few years.
Despite these recent advancements, most of the research still suggests that a commercially viable quantum computer is still 5-10 years away. Currently the most powerful quantum computer available for use, IBM’s 14th quantum computer, contains 53 qubits, but a quantum computer that would be able to offer a real advancement compared to existing technology would require thousands of qubits. There are also a number of technical challenges that hold back the progress of quantum computing. For example, the hardware needs to be cooled to almost absolute zero and must have no outside noise or interference.
Quantum computing is nearing the peak of inflated expectations on Gartner’s 2019 Hype Cycle for AI
Source: Gartner / Forbes
Some organisations however, claim that quantum computing is much closer than many realise. One start-up, equal1.labs, have suggested that they could have a commercially viable quantum computing chip ready by 2022.
Given how quickly the technology is advancing, and with an increasing influx of funding from venture capitalists, it’s possible that quantum computing may become a reality sooner rather than later.
What are companies doing now?
Some major tech companies are beginning to offer cloud-based quantum computing services that can be used to test and develop quantum algorithms on their quantum hardware.
Some of the organisations offering these services include:
- Amazon Braket – A service that allows users to develop quantum algorithms, and then run them using different quantum hardware technologies.
- Microsoft Azure Quantum – A full-stack, open cloud ecosystem that allows for developing and running quantum algorithms.
- IBM Quantum Experience – A service that allows users to study quantum computing and run quantum programs via IBM’s quantum cloud services.
Despite quantum computing still being in its relative infancy, several large corporations are already investigating potential uses by taking advantage of the cloud-based quantum computing services on offer:
- JPMorgan are looking to use quantum computing technology to improve their fraud detection services and reduce staff hours required on tasks that could be automated.
- Several biopharma start-up companies are studying the possibility of using quantum computing in the process of drug discovery and development. This could lead to significant advancements in the treatment of diseases.
- QC technology could be used in modelling and predicting weather patterns. Organisations such as the UK’s Met Office investigating possible uses in this area.
- Volkswagen are using quantum computing technology to optimise bus routes in cities around the world.
- Airbus are applying quantum computing technology to optimise aircraft loading and fluid dynamics.
- Barclays devised a quantum computing initiative working group in 2017 in order to develop a strategy that can take advantage of future quantum computing advances.
What does the future look like?
Quantum computing has the potential to revolutionise a number of industries and forward-thinking companies are already investigating ways they can leverage this technology when it becomes more commercially viable.
This may not happen for a few years, but we may see some more useful advancements emerging from the major tech companies sooner than most people think.
If you’re working on quantum computing and feel that you could offer useful insight or expertise, we’d like to hear from you.