The Future of Quantum Computing
They should be able to calculate faster and process larger amounts of data: Although the technology is still in the experimental stage and and many mysteries are still unsolved: The race for the first operable quantum technology, for proof of the superemacy of this technology and for the best positioning in a future market is gaining momentum. This was noticeable in January at the fifth meeting of the Bavarian Quantum Computing eXchange network (BQCX), which meets every second Wednesday of the month at the Leibniz Supercomputing Center (LRZ) in Garching: Google as well as the startups IQM and Quantum Brilliance presented their solutions for stabilizing qubits, for building conceivable processors, not least for constructing hardware - and, eventually, a lot of hope for big business.
Money, money, money
In contrast to a bit, qubits, the smallest possible memory and compute unit for quantum computing, can be in different states simultaneously and thus calculate faster and more. This arouses desires. Research and industry are producing ever larger amounts of data, for which even supercomputers need a lot of time to process. Quantum computers will one day process the data to control traffic and money flows, to search for new active ingredients and materials in pharmaceuticals and chemistry or to encrypt information. This is still a dream of the future, but the USA and China are already investing aggressively. In 2018, 450 million dollars were invested in so-called Deep Techs, start-ups, in the USA alone. These will research the fundamentals of quantum computing and provide technical solutions. At the same time, companies such as Google, IBM, Baidu and Alibaba also want to position themselves at the forefront and are investing billions in their developments to do so.
In Europe, the next generation of computers is primarily attacked in research and science, although some companies are also stepping up their efforts in this area. The EU wants to provide at least one billion euros by 2030 to lay the foundations for a quantum system made in Europe. "We should make use of this," says Jan Goetz, who did his doctorate in Munich on quantum processors, co-founded IQM in Finland and raised more than 11 million euros in capital for the start-up: "Thanks to public funding, Europe is world leader in the academic field. Universities and scientific computing centres can therefore keep up with the competition for ideas in quantum technology.
Diamonds are the Qubits friends
Quantum computers calculate differently from current supercomputers; they use the physical properties of the smallest particles. However, these are extremely sensitive, so that the qubits can only be achieved - and above all maintained - with the greatest effort. Experiments are being conducted with chemical electromagnetic or optical methods. "Most of them operate at temperatures close to absolute zero, require cryogenic cooling technology and ultra-stable lasers," explains Andrew Horsley, co-founder of Quantum Brilliance with a PhD in physics. "However, complexity and cost limit their use and market size."
That is why the Australian start-up company is relying on diamonds to build up qubits and thus also processors. The optical process uses the radiant power provided by the tiniest nitrogen vacancies in the core of the stone fragments. Instead of temperatures around minus 270 degrees, initial tests show that this technology could enable the qubits to work at room temperature. By 2021, the Australians want to use diamond splinters to develop Quantum Processing Units (QPU) of three to five qubits and a viable device for practical calculations that could also support supercomputers. Together with partners from research and industry, QPUs with 100 and more qubits are to be created by 2030: "Quantum computing for everyone - that is our vision," Horsley says.
The Power of Quantum
Three to five qubits – that doesn't sound like much power. However, depending on quantum mechanical influence, qubits can assume not just one state like the bits, but two. And they are entangled. In contrast to their predecessors, quantum computers do not perform computing tasks in individual steps, but simultaneously. With its Sycamore chip, Google wants to have developed the first processor that works with 54 qubits and calculates a probability calculation in minutes, a task for which supercomputers would need thousands of years. But not only competitor IBM has raised some doubts about this.
However, the 53 qubits that actually handled the complex calculation of random numbers can assume states of more than 9 quadrillion (a number with 16 digits) - and thus process unimaginable floating point operations. Alan Ho, who heads product and business development in the area of quantum and artificial intelligence at Google, gave an insight into the Sycamore test in Garching: "The qubits were connected in three different ways for calculation, but still produced the same results in each case. "Whether closed, patched or full circuit - predicted errors do not depend on the qubit connections or computer-based complexity," Ho concludes. Google plans to soon increase the number of quibts to 57 and invites researchers and industry alike to challenge Sycamore with real-world computing tasks.
Thinking out Loud
Very strong cooling, different physical methods for storing information - quantum computers demand a completely new technology: IQM is one of those companies that already takes care of hardware for the new computer age. The Finnish start-up is improving the extraction of results with a multi-channel readout. IQM's systems at least promise higher clock frequencies of future quantum computers. "Reset and readout consume the most time," explains Goetz. "The faster these processes become, the less information is lost." Like Quantum Brilliance, IQM also relies on partnerships with supercomputing centres to further develop its technology.
All this shows that quantum technology still poses many questions. Even if research, industry and politics are already thinking out loud about the next generation of computers, it will be a long time before dreams of the future become everyday life.