Quantum computing: what it is, what it is for and why it matters

Frontier of computational evolution, quantum computing is today taking its first concrete steps but is still far from fulfilling expectations. However, thanks also to important public and private investments, research gallops and in the short term we will see the first commercial applications. The goal of this article is to explain, in a simple and clear summary, what quantum computing is, why it is important and what is the state of the art today.

What is quantum computing and what does it mean? Quantum computers are new types of devices that allow information to be represented and manipulated not through the classic bits, namely “0” and “1”, but through quantum bits or qubits, more complex objects that exploit certain properties peculiar to quantum physics such as superposition of states, entanglement and quantum interference.

The main advantage of quantum computers is that potentially this category of computers could solve some families of problems , in technical jargon certain “complexity classes”, which today are very difficult and require excessive time, technical and economic resources to be able to deal with them . This is a fascinating field, but with considerable criticalities: both from a scientific point of view (there are still difficulties in demonstrating the effective superiority of quantum computing over classical approaches) and at the engineering level, given the fragility of quantum systems and the need to shield them from radiation, keep them in temperatures close to freezing and correct errors.

Index of topics

  • When the idea of ​​quantum computing was born
  • The current state of quantum computing
  • What research is focusing on today and what are the possible applications
  • What are the public and private investments in quantum computing

When the idea of ​​quantum computing was born

The idea of ​​quantum computing was born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when researchers such as Yuri Manin, Richard Feynman and David Deutsch began to theorize that the properties of quantum mechanics could be useful for processing differently. information compared to traditional paradigms .

In the 1990s, the first quantum computing algorithms began to be developed through the contribution of Peter Shor, with a potentially useful factorization algorithm for cryptanalysis, and Lov Grover, with regard to increasing efficiency in database search.

The current state of quantum computing

In the first decade of the 2000s, more and more physical implementations of qubits were seen, through different paradigms such as the superconducting one [physical phenomenon that involves zero electrical resistance and expulsion of the magnetic field that occurs in some materials below a characteristic temperature called critical ed] or the one based on ion traps [device capable of capturing ions with the aid of electric and magnetic fields ed].

In recent years, all the large high-tech companies have invested in the sector, together with some startups such as Rigetti or D-Wave . Among the technology multinationals we can mention for example Google , with its 72 qubit Bristlecone processor , IBM , which in January 2019 announced its commercial quantum computer IBM Q , or Microsoft , which adopts a heterodox approach based on so-called fermions Majorana [fermionic particle which is also its own antiparticle; fermions are particles that, together with bosons, constitute one of the two fundamental classes into which particles are divided ed].

The current state of things is that it is possible to make qubits work, but the achievement of quantum supremacy is not yet 100% certain, that is the unequivocal empirical measurement of the greater effectiveness of quantum computers compared to traditional ones in the resolution of some details. categories of problems .

What research is focusing on today and what are the possible applications

The evolution of research now addresses numerous lines, from systems scalability (not all infrastructural approaches now explored will be easily extensible), to error correction, from the exploration of early industrial applications to the creation of frameworks and languages ​​to develop software. able to exploit the potential of quantum technologies.

In the short term, given that they require relatively few qubits, the most probable applications of quantum computing concern simulations, in particular as regards systems themselves based on quantum properties . For example, in the chemical-biological field there are numerous hypotheses, from pharmaceutical research to the creation of new materials, from the analysis of fertilizers to that of energy storage systems.

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To give another example, IBM alongside 30 other organizations created the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, aggregating more than 400 petaflops of computing power (one petaflot corresponds to one million billion instructions per second) and 100,000 nodes. to manage a broad portfolio of projects to understand the evolution of the virus faster and enable scientists to accelerate the development of antivirals and a vaccine. But the use of quantum computing, combined with HPC supercomputers, is not limited to applications dictated by the current pandemic emergency.

In the medium term, applications related to simulations and big data can also be hypothesized , such as in finance or scientific research. In the long run it is possible that quantum attacks could break some of the cryptographic algorithms routinely used in financial transactions today (including many cryptographic systems on which blockchains are based.) and in securing military communications. This is something that will not happen tomorrow, very large quantities of qubits are needed to make these applications feasible, but already today research lines related to post quantum cryptography or quantum safe are being born [in this regard we recommend reading the interview with Cecilia Boschini , researcher at IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, Quantum-Proof and Cloud-Oriented Computer Cryptography ed].

A final line of analysis concerns the potential applications related to artificial intelligence and machine learning . For now, this is only a hypothetical scenario and it is not possible to make predictions. However, research on quantum machine learning is extending more and more, given that, if it were indeed possible to accelerate learning in a neural network or improve statistical learning systems, the applications would be enormous and would affect all sectors, as is the case today. for classical artificial intelligence.

What are the public and private investments in quantum computing

In recent years there has also been a growing volume of public and private investment in the development of quantum computers and quantum technologies in general.

Major American venture capital funds, such as Andresseen-Horowitz , Founders Fund and Google Ventures have at least one company in their portfolio linked to this sector, as do major accelerators such as Y Combinator or investment banks such as Goldman Sachs .

Numerous governments, also given the implications for defense and intelligence, are funding research projects in this regard . China and the United States have launched multi-year programs in the billions of euros, and the European Union has also launched the Quantum Flagship program worth one billion euros. Many other nations, from Canada to Singapore, have invested resources and have been able to attract human capital to their research centers.

This is a phenomenon that will continue in the short term and in which it will be essential to build ecosystems at 360 degrees: not only research per se, but upstream training and the cycle of technology transfer and investment in venture capital downstream. Those who succeed in doing so will be able to play a role in the “second quantum revolution”, based on the opening of new application spaces in telecommunications, communication, cryptography and information processing.


by Abdullah Sam
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