Quantum computing is just beginning. But exaltation could destroy everything


For many scientists working in the field, the keen interest that investors and CIOs are taking in quantum computing is a double-edged sword.

Image: Honeywell Quantum Solutions

The idea that quantum computers will transform business and usher in a new era of unprecedented computing power is increasingly making its way into executive presentations as a sign of forethought and innovation, with technology often presented as the new necessity that could deliver. competitive advantage.

But for many scientists working in the field, the keen interest that investors and CIOs are taking in quantum computing is a double-edged sword. While quantum computing may need to be relocated from laboratories and into enterprises, the marketing of the technology may take place too soon, they warn, risking the elimination of quantum computing to the much-feared “over-exploited” category, along with virtual reality, blockchain or NFTs.

It’s not that quantum computing isn’t interesting. From a scientific point of view, it is extremely exciting – which is why research has been going on in the field for decades.

In the early 1990s, scientists were already excited about the idea of ​​using quantum mechanics to build next-generation computers. This is because it has been observed that when particles in their smallest, quantum, state behave very differently from the way the laws of classical physics dictate.

For example, quantum particles can exist in several different states at the same time, in a kind of double reality. This property, imagined by scientists at the time, could be exploited in the context of computing, with quantum particles capable of carrying different data in parallel, instead of being limited, like the classical computer bit, to either one or zero. The idea of ​​the quantum bit, or cubit, was born.

Armed with quits, a computer could theoretically deal with very complex problems in no time, as different calculations could be made simultaneously in multiple parallel “realities.”

“Basically, we’ve known as a community since the early 1990s that quantum computing can solve difficult problems for classical computers,” said Bill Fefferman, an assistant professor in the computer science department at the University of Chicago. “Those were theoretical results – no experiments came up with that. We just said that in principle, if a perfect quantum computer were ever built, it could do these things.”

Fast forward to the present, and we are now seeing early prototypes of small-scale quantum computers – systems that can control a small number of quits, though usually no more than 100 or more. The most powerful quantum machines built by IBM, for example, which is one of the leading investors in the field, currently boast 65 quits.

With such few quits, there is very little that quantum computers can actually do: researchers estimate that up to one million quits, and perhaps even more, would be needed to build the perfect quantum system that engineers dreamed of in the 1990s. But scientists can still experiment with today’s small-scale machines to hypothesize how things might turn out as technology becomes more advanced, and the results they see so far seem promising.

Chemical engineers, for example, predict that quantum computers will be able to simulate large and complex molecules. to predict the combinations that will best fight disease to create life-saving drugs much faster; banking giants rely on quantum systems to determine the best stocks to buy and sell for maximum return, based on calculations that may account for many more rapidly changing factors; and car manufacturers are testing how technology could revolutionize battery design, supply chain optimization, or traffic management in dense, urban settings.

These early experiments generate a lot of excitement across fields ranging from oil and gas to logistics, through cybersecurity, agriculture and even weather forecasting. Every industry, some experts say, is transformed by technology once it reaches maturity.

“Early experiments suggest that this technology will hold on to the promise of solving very interesting problems that cannot be solved classically,” says Fefferman.

It didn’t take long for investors to notice. The quantum computer industry is flourishing, largely driven by deep-pocket technology giants IBM and Google, which was among the first large companies to be interested in technology. They have now been joined by Amazon and Microsoft, both of which have launched their own quantum programs, as well as dozens of smaller companies. that combined saw a total investment of $ 1.02 billion this year alone.

There are now nearly 200 quantum computing start-ups on the market, offering services in quantum software and hardware, and promising huge business improvements once the quantum revolution kicks in. The first publicly traded company dedicated to quantum computers, IonQ, was announced earlier this year in a $ 2 billion deal. Quantum roadmaps are multiplying, by IBM’s 1,121-kb system set to be released by 2023 a PsiQuantum’s promise of a million cubits until 2025.

But some experts now express doubts about the viability of this industry. For Sabine Hossenfelder, a researcher in theoretical physics at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, the quantum computer industry is experiencing a bubble – and the consequences could be very detrimental to research.

“I’m working on basic research, and from my perspective all the early applications of quantum are very exciting,” Hossenfelder tells ZDNet. “But a lot of the things I read are unreasonably optimistic.”

“The risk I see is that you have all these investors who like the idea that soon enough we will have a great quantum computer and we will make money with it because we will solve all these problems – but in five years or. so they will realize that these promises have not been fulfilled. Then they will pull out and it will be really difficult to continue, even on the research side, because the bubble will swell drastically. ”

For Hossenfelder, the problem is mostly related to the timeline. Reaching the one million kbit mark is a huge technical challenge, considering the current less than 100 kbit state of the art. It’s not just about successfully creating and controlling more quits: engineers also need to think of ways to reduce the space needed to fit all the equipment that is needed to run the system. Current quantum computers are already filling rooms with machinery and tools; making the devices orders of size larger with current technologies is simply unrealistic.

The next few years will not bring all the technical solutions to these problems, argues Hossenfelder, comparing the challenge to building a modern computer a century ago and equipped only with wood.

And even if it does, even if there is a team working secretly on a new approach that could solve all existing issues in the next five to 10 years, it is by no means certain that quantum computers will beat classic computers on all fronts. . Quite the opposite: quantum systems are expected to be transformative for specific use cases, especially simulation, but it is unlikely that they will soon replace our current laptops.

“We have to be careful that we talk about them in a precise way,” says Fefferman. “Quantum computers are not a panacea; they won’t be able to speed up all the problems. There will be some problems that even after 30 or 100 years, when a perfect quantum computer exists, it won’t be able to solve.”

There is every indication that classic computers are here to stay, and that they will still be used for many tasks – if not most of them. Quantum computers, by contrast, will be more of a special purpose device that will generate extreme speeds on a set of very specific problems. What scientists are doing today is trying to figure out exactly what these problems might be.

So where does the quantum computing industry boom begin – and end? “It simply came to our notice then
“There are a lot of research teams with legitimate goals, as well as a lot of companies developing products that could be game-changing. But there are also a lot of companies riding the system and selling what has become known as a ‘quantum snake.’

Fefferman is not alone in warning against the unrealistic expectations that are set for quantum computing. Computer scientist Scott Aaronson, for example, is a prominent critic of this emerging bubble, writing in his blog that the call now comes from within the house means that quantum scientists themselves care about the proportions that the quantum field reaches prematurely.

Hype is not fundamentally bad for quantum computing: the industry needs a business interest if it is to leave the realm of academia and achieve the dream born in the 90s. The danger lies in creating unattainable expectations too quickly – in fact, in creating them altogether. For scientists working in the field, this only makes the prospect of a “quantum winter” far too soon. The promise of quantum computing is certainly real; but to be conscious of it will require patience, and a strong degree of responsibility.

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