How Close Are We To Quantum Computers?

Are we going to see a quantum computer imminently?


The idea of quantum computers is something that has had many people excited and terrified for years. According to reports from 2015, Google's quantum computing project was figuring out our algorithms 100,000,000 times faster than traditional computers, which has the potential to obliterate any kind of traditional security and process data that would normally take days, in nanoseconds. Todd Holmdahl, who oversees the quantum project at Microsoft described the difference in terms of a computer solving a maze 'A typical computer will try one path and get blocked and then try another and another and another...A quantum computer can try all paths at the same time'.

Quantum computers work using the superposition principle. So where a traditional computer stores information in bits within transistors than can be in a state of 1 or 0, quantum computers use qubits, which can be 1, 0 or 1 and 0. It means that 2 qubits can hold 4 states at once, which when multiplied across a huge number of qubits makes quantum computers significantly more powerful. With these kind of numbers combined with the huge amount of data we now collect and analyze, it is no surprise that the main benefit that people see from this kind of computing is in data analysis.

However, despite a lot of excitement around the technology, there has been very little in terms of a real product. Google have demonstrated the power of the computer and many others including IBM, Intel, Microsoft, a Silicon Valley start-up called Rigetti Computing, and Quantum Circuits, have all had their work in the area well publicized, there has been nothing that people can actually see and nothing that people have been able to relate to beyond impressive looking machinery and big numbers.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks so far has been the time that data can be stored on the system, otherwise known as coherence time. The problem is that after a certain amount of time this data decays and becomes unusable, throwing up strange and unpredictable results. However, this issue is slowly being fixed and at the core of this is Robert Schoelkopf, the founder of Quantum Circuits and professor at the forefront of the development of quantum computing. He is so key to the development of quantum computing that there is even Schoelkopf’s Law, which originally started off as a play on Moore's Law, that has shown that every three years we can improve coherence times by a factor of 10.

Although quantum computers are not currently physically available for mass use, Schoelkopf is confident that we are not too far away, noting that, 'In the last few years, it has become apparent to us and others around the world that we know enough about this that we can build a working system...This is a technology that we can begin to commercialize.' It is one of the reasons why the likes of Google, Intel, IBM, and Microsoft, as well as smaller players like Quantum Circuits and Rigetti Computing are all in a very well funded arms race to get the first working quantum computer up and running.

Given the impact that Schoelkopf has had on the area, Quantum Circuits certainly has a big part to play, but certain physical constraints mean that Google is in pole position even if they aren't the first to create a working quantum computer. At present it would actually make sense for Google to buy Quantum Circuits and bring them in-house. This is because quantum computing requires very specific conditions to work, with qubits needing to be kept at extremely low temperatures to operate and due to the delicate nature of the entire machine, it needs to be housed in an almost entirely sterilized environment.

It means that there will basically be no real monetization from selling the computers themselves, but instead offering the use of the computers as a service through the cloud. Google is presently far and away the leader in offering data storage and analysis over the cloud, so if Google can get a quantum computer working effectively and either running their existing infrastructure from it or offering its services over the cloud, they would be able to completely dominate the market far quicker than any other company in the chasing group.

At present these things are just hypothetical though, because although the march towards the first useable quantum computer is increasing in pace every day, we are not yet at a point where this is imminent. There is every chance that we will see impressive tests and increasing open source opportunities for developers to experiment with before the end of the year, but a more realistic timeline is probably sometime within the next 5 years.


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