Who Will Achieve Quantum Computing Supremacy?

Backed by leading tech companies, 2018 could be the year of quantum leaps

Last year, Google announced that it expected to achieve ‘quantum supremacy’ within a matter of months. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were tinkering away at a fully functional quantum computer, but this is far from the case. Quantum supremacy is a grand term for the tiny incremental increases that are needed to demonstrate quantum capabilities beyond conventional computers. Google’s current system supports nine qubits – a long way off from the omnipotent machines first discussed in the 1980s. However, the company has been very open about its ambitions to create the most capable quantum system to date. How will this be achieved? Which other companies are they up against? And what does this mean for the development of quantum computing?

Quantum computing. . . It’s complicated

While a conventional computer uses bits (basic units of information), a quantum computer or system uses qubits (quantum units of information). Unfortunately, qubits are notoriously tricky to work with. Over time, they can degrade and become less accurate. Ironically, the more qubits in a system, the more likely it is to make mistakes. Supplying the computing power needed to support any number of qubits is also no easy task.

“If you take a complicated quantum system and you want to simulate it on an ordinary computer, then there is exponential effort needed,” explains Professor Tim Spiller, director of the York Technology Hub for Quantum Communications. “If you can get to about 50 quantum bits interacting with each other, you will be able to go in new directions.”

Incidentally, this is exactly what Google plans to do. The aim is to gradually add qubits, testing accuracy as they go. If their expectations are fulfilled, the system will be revealed early this year. The quantum race, though, is crowded. Last October, Intel released a superconducting chip for quantum computers. IBM claims that it has already achieved a 49 qubit system, and Canadian startup D-Wave is reportedly working on a 4,000 qubit model. Microsoft has taken an entirely different approach which involves subatomic particles. Another quantum solution under development at Canada’s National Institute of Scientific Research is the ‘qudit’, an even more powerful unit of information.

What are the implications of successful quantum systems?

Quantum systems are so useful because they can simulate scenarios that can’t be created in the real world. Take, for example, the study of pathogens. A quantum system could simulate the development of a pathogen in order to create more effective treatments. Think of quantum systems as the ultimate laboratory, exploring any reaction imaginable and applying the findings to real world applications.

Another field of study is quantum communication, a key aim of which is securing networks against malicious hackers. The most immediate use of the quantum systems under development today will be to solve complex mathematical problems. This increased numerical capacity could supercharge the expansion of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning techniques; help in finding solutions for sustainability; enable a better understanding of our own biology; enhance materials science. . . the list is endless. The problem is that before any of this can happen, existing systems need to become reliably accurate. The general consensus seems to be that it will take 10 years. The challenge for major players will be to retain investors even as their funding is gradually eaten up, and convince enthusiasts that the technology is worth their continued support. Another key consideration is deciding how to check the power of the corporations who develop quantum systems. Reassuringly, both Microsoft and Google have created open source quantum platforms which demonstrate a collaborative attitude.

True quantum computers may remain out of reach, but quantum supremacy does not. Google is no doubt a strong contender, flanked by a number of equally influential corporations. Over time, these companies will explore and expand the capabilities of the quantum technology available today. Existing quantum simulators, for example, can already solve complex mathematical problems. What practical, industrial problems could this help to solve? At the same time it’s important to be aware that these systems are yet to overtake conventional supercomputers, even if they do represent a step towards fully functional quantum computers. Regardless of the claims of competitive corporations, we’ll have to wait quite a (qu)bit longer for those.

Could 2018 be the year of error free quantum systems? Which company will be the first to achieve quantum supremacy? Will the benefits of quantum computing carry it through the next period of development? Share your thoughts and opinions.