Many headlines were made late last month when Google reached a major landmark in the increasingly rapid development of quantum computing. In an upcoming report, currently under peer-review, the company claims its 53-qubit Sycamore computer took only minutes to complete a number generation task that would have taken the world’s most powerful supercomputers 10,000 years to accomplish. While this is an undeniable scientific feat, as Google plans to be the first company to claim the crown of “Quantum Supremacy”, it may be more of a symbolic victory for the Silicon Valley giant. Other firms like IBM and D-Wave are more focused on racing to “Quantum Advantage”, a more practical pursuit toward applications in defense, cybersecurity, medicine, and other fields.
MRP has previously highlighted how quantum computing will shape the future of major industries like defense and digital entertainment. Quantum computing could eventually open the door to data optimization that will enable future scientific discoveries such as new medicines and materials, vast improvements in the optimization of supply chains, and new ways to model financial data to make better investments.
September was one of the most exciting months in recent memory for quantum technologies as Google and IBM made waves across the tech landscape with dueling quantum breakthroughs, plunging the two companies deeper into a race to what is considered “quantum supremacy”; essentially, the point at which a quantum computer that can perform a task beyond the reach of even the most powerful conventional supercomputer in any practical time frame.
A simple description, via MIT Technology Review, states that a classical computer utilizes bits that carry information represent either a 1 or a 0 (this is known as binary); but quantum bits, or qubits―which take the form of subatomic particles such as photons and electrons―can be in a kind of combination of 1 and 0 at the same time, a state known as “superposition.” Unlike bits, qubits can also influence one another through a phenomenon known as “entanglement.” Using these two principles, qubits can exist in numerous different states and act as more sophisticated switches, enabling quantum computers to function in ways that allow them to solve difficult problems that are intractable using today’s computers. Quantum computing also has the potential to rapidly scale up its power, bypassing constraints that slowed the growth of traditional computers like Moore’s Law, which saw power double every 18 months to 24 months or so.
In Google’s case, MIT Tech Review notes the company plans to come right out and said they’ve achieved full on quantum supremacy in an upcoming research paper, after their team used a quantum processor code-named Sycamore to prove that figures pumped out by a random number generator were indeed truly random. They then worked out how long it would take Summit, the world’s most powerful supercomputer, to do the same task. The quantum machine achieved it in 3 minutes and 20 seconds, while researchers estimated that the classical computer would need 10,000 years to do the same. Last May, Google said it expects the power of quantum computers to expand at a “double exponential rate”, a rate of growth that Google has dubbed “Neven’s Law”, after Hartmut Neven, the director of the company’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab.
However, Neven’s Law also applies to Google’s top quantum competitors, including IBM. Prior to Google’s announcement, IBM had announced plans to make its own 53-qubit quantum computer available to clients of its IBM Q Network next month. The new system, which should go online by the middle of October, will be the largest universal quantum computer that’s available for general commercial use. IBM had previously opened up a 5-quibit quantum prototype in the cloud back in 2016, which now has more than 150,000 registered users and nearly 80 commercial clients, academic institutions and research laboratories to advance quantum computing and explore practical applications. IBM says users have run more than 14 million experiments on IBM’s quantum computers through the cloud in the last 3 years, and published more than 200 scientific papers.
IBM has also tried to downplay Google’s claim of quantum supremacy. Dario Gil, head of IBM Research, has said that Google’s result represents a “laboratory experiment” with “no practical applications”, stressing scalability and practicality over spectacles. This wouldn’t be the first time Google got too far ahead of itself in their quantum innovations; their breakthrough 72-qubit quantum computer chip Bristlecone, announced in March 2018, turned out to be too difficult to control. Google’s “quantum supremacy” claim was actually achieved through a scaled-back 53-qubit design. Other quantum innovators like Microsoft and Honeywell have chosen their words more gracefully than IBM, referring to Google’s achievement as “exciting”, or “good for the industry”, but ultimately agreeing that they have not reached the end-all-be-all of quantum computing.
Besting conventional computers at creating real-world solutions ―a feat that some researchers refer to as “quantum advantage” – is the real focus for most quantum labs.
In the medical field, as MRP noted last year, when radiation therapy is administered to cancer patients, doctors must decide on the best possible radiation dose, its level of intensity and the specific point at which the beams need to be targeted, while at the same time minimizing the side-effects on the patient. These calculations are currently made by a medical dosimetrist who uses software to work out the right dosage. The current software cannot guarantee an optimal result there are too many variables to take into account. Moreover, neither the software nor traditional computers have the capacity to test all possible solutions. A quantum computer, however, would be able to work out the best possible treatment for a given patent, achieving not only a more precise result but, in theory, much faster as well. D-Wave, one of the first companies to develop commercial applications for quantum computers, has already carried out an initial study in conjunction with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, a medical research facility in Buffalo, New York that is recognized as being at the cutting edge of radiotherapy research.
D-Wave is unique in that it has begun to undertake practical quantum applications while their system is technically, not yet considered a universal quantum computer. Rather, their operations are referred to as quantum annealers, which can produce “good enough” answers to problems that have many potential solutions. D-Wave’s most recent customer for their “Advantage” system is Los Alamos National Laboratory, a US Department of Energy lab focused on keeping the nation’s nuclear weapons up to date ― and checking their safety and potency using methods that include computer simulations.
One of quantum computing’s most crucial applications, however, will be defending data and cryptography against itself, especially in the age of digital currencies and the blockchain, when so much monetary value is becoming digitized and decentralzied. When quantum methods can eventually be utilized by hackers to unlock traditionally-encrypted data, it will take quantum-focused cybersecurity to fight back. Incalculable amounts of data will eventually need to be upgraded to be quantum-resistant and IBM is already out ahead of the curve on this front. In August, the company announced a quantum-encryption system dubbed CRYSTALS (short for Cryptographic Suite for Algebraic Lattices) to successfully encrypt a magnetic-tape storage drive. IBM has submitted CRYSTALS to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to be recognized as the new standardized cryptography technique, and hopes to use the system for its own future products and to render the IBM Cloud quantum-proof by 2020.
Physical security will also benefit as quantum tech can accelerate facial recognition and other privacy tech. Stevens Institute of Technology has already built out a quantum lock that uses traditional facial recognition algorithms, using quantum software, lasers create twin photons that are separated while secret “keys” are instantly generated, ensuring the secure information meets up with a trusted partner at the other end of the transaction. The data exchanged between the two parties is, therefore, secured by fundamental laws of physics. IEEE Spectrum reports the system could also bring secure privacy to the individual, adds the Stevens team, including for such applications as controlling systems in one’s home remotely; communicating with a corporate office from home, or securing a home wireless network. For all the talk of quantum supremacy that has floated around for years now, forward-looking investors should focus more on tangible applications than symbolic victories. Quantum applications have already left the lab and will play a large part in defining the leading technology companies for decades to come.
Alphabet (GOOG) vs IBM (IBM) vs Intel (INTC) vs Microsoft (MSFT) vs S&P 500 (SPY)
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