The superiority of any computing technology zeroes down to its processing capabilities, and over the years the classical computer chip’s processing power has been pushed to limits by shrinking its components, in order to reduce the distance travelled by electric signals in between.
The famous Moore’s Law (by Gordon Moore) states “the number of transistors on a microchip double about every two years, though the cost of computers is halved”, helping us draw context on why billions of dollars are being invested into making these chips smaller and smaller. Apple’s 5-nanometre processor is a good example of where we are, but we’re seemingly hitting a wall in terms of marginal increases in processing power for every additional billion dollars invested. Furthermore, these classical computers require longer periods to solve complex problems and sometimes this can even go up to 10,000 years.
While we’re progressing towards smaller circuits and complex problems, we’ve reached the physical limits of materials and the threshold for classical laws of physics to apply, hence chip designers are going subatomic to solve this. The use of quantum physics in computing has shown some progress in terms of achieving better processing capabilities over supercomputers.
What exactly is quantum computing?
A quantum computer (QC) uses qubits (the fundamental unit of a QC) to store and process information. Unlike the classical bit which is either 0 or 1 at a time, a qubit can be both 0 and 1 at the same time (explained under ‘Superposition’) — a property which enables a QC to solve problems faster by evaluating solutions simultaneously. Fundamentally a QC derives its power from these 3 main principles of quantum particles:
- Superposition: The qubit’s ability to be 1 & 0 at the same time, i.e. in the state of probabilities (’x%’ probability of being 1 and ‘y%’ probability of being 0).
- Interference: The qubit can cross its own trajectory and interfere with the direction of its path.
- Entanglement: Two qubits are entangled if changing the state of 1 qubit instantaneously changes the state of the other in a predictable way, despite the amount of distance between them.
The number of computations a QC could make is 2^n, where ’n’ denotes the number of qubits used. Hence, with each additional qubit, a QC would attain an exponential increase in processing power, which would be much faster than what Moore’s law stated about doubling transistors. We must also bear in mind that QCs won’t replace our current classical computers (eg: PC, smartphones, etc.), rather they’d complement them in a particular area or application.
What does a quantum computer look like?
This is the IBM System One with a 127-qubit processor. To ensure longer coherence times (period of qubits being in a quantum state) and increase the accuracy of calculations (by reducing noise), QCs are equipped with superconductors made from elements such as Niobium and kept at 1/100th of a degree Celsius i.e., just above absolute zero, using super-fluids like liquid Helium.
Where can quantum computers add value?
With early use cases like optimization, simulation and encryption, QCs are capable of saving billions of dollars and years in time across industries, and these include:
- Process optimization: QC can help with supply chain optimization and manufacturing process optimization, thereby cutting down costs and establishing an efficient way. Volkswagen is using QC to optimize its manufacturing process, and Daimler is working towards making better automotive batteries.
- Drug simulation: QC can enable a significant reduction in R&D costs and time to market for a new drug. Riverlane & Astex Pharmaceuticals are working with Rigetti Computing to develop an integrated application for simulating molecular systems to enable drug discovery.
- Cryptography: A powerful enough quantum computer can break the most secure encryption ever created in a matter of seconds, thus emphasizing the need for post-quantum encryption to secure future use-cases. QuintessenceLabs, an Australian company, has been working on Quantum Random Number Generator (QRNG) & Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) technologies — the foundation for quantum encryption and data security.
- Other interesting use cases: IBM is working on improving weather forecasting, JP Morgan is exploring applications in financial modelling & options pricing, and Rigetti is improving machine learning.
Who’s who in quantum computing:
Source: Silicon Foundry
Various companies have been working towards achieving better QC performance and use cases. Essentially, the ecosystem is comprised of the following sub-verticals:
- Quantum hardware: Most challenging sub-vertical that requires millions of dollars in investments for building out the QC, with efforts from talented experts.
- Quantum software: Building software solutions for horizontal (or) industry-specific applications like molecular simulation, error correction, algorithm testing, etc.
- Quantum systems & firmware: Solving for hardware error and qubit instability arising from environmental disturbances and imperfect devices.
- Quantum encryption & AI: Working on technologies like QRNG & QKD to develop quantum-based encryption chips (or) software.
- Cloud computing: Providing direct access to emulators, simulators and quantum processors. Mostly offered by hardware players like IBM, Google, etc.
- Full-stack: These are companies that offer end-to-end quantum computing solutions. They already have a built QCs in house and provide access to it via the cloud.
Research shows that ~35% of QC revenues will be captured by QC software players and 26% by hardware players.
Geographically the U.S.A. has seen the most success in quantum computing, but the Chinese are also catching up. In October 2021, researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), said one of the quantum computing systems, Zuchongzhi 2.1, is 100x more powerful than Google’s 53-qubit Sycamore.
The Govt. of India has shown its conviction through its National Mission on Quantum Technologies & Applications mission (NM-QTA) with an INR 8,000 Cr budget (to be deployed over a 5-year period). Top Indian universities including IIT Madras, IISc Bangalore, TIFR, and IISER Pune have been spearheading QC research. Other institutions like MeitY, ISRO, and the Indian Army have also taken initiatives in this space.
Quantum Computing is still years away from actual commercialization since we’re still in the Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) era. The creation of a 10,000 qubit QC and enough error correction would end the ‘NISQ era’ and mark the beginning of the ‘Universal Quantum’ era wherein QCs would be capable of breaking the RSA encryption (the bedrock of the internet’s encryption). Hence, overcoming challenges like error correction (by reducing noise), de-coherence (increase time period of a qubit’s quantum state), and output observance (reducing risk of data corruption while retrieving output) will help us transition towards the ‘Universal Quantum’ era.
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