New initiatives could accelerate a computing breakthrough
PHOTO COURTESY OF IBM
IBM scientists Hanhee Paik and Sarah Sheldon at the company’s Q Lab in Yorktown Heights, New York, USA
When Google announced in August that one of its quantum computers had succeeded in simulating a chemical reaction, it became the latest breakthrough for the technology. Quantum’s promise: harnessing the power of subatomic particles to provide computing power that’s impossible with traditional machines. Yet teams face technological and talent barriers on the way to showing how quantum computing can deliver practical applications.
Public and private organizations around the world are getting on board with new funding and ground-breaking initiatives. In August, for example, a top Chinese scientist announced that a quantumequipped satellite—launched in 2016 in partnership with Austria—had facilitated hack-proof long-range communications between observatories 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) apart.
Governments are sparking project activity, too. Germany announced in June that it is investing €2 billion in quantum research; in August, the United States directed another US$1 billion toward artificial intelligence and quantum-computing programs—just two years after allocating US$1.2 billion to advance quantum research.
But tech and science giants are leading the charge. Google’s chemical-reaction project followed the company’s 2019 experiment—proclaiming it was the first to achieve quantum supremacy with a new 54-qubit processor named Sycamore. Google said Sycamore was able to perform a calculation in 200 seconds that would have taken the world’s most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years.
“It’s an exciting time because quantum technology has advanced to a place where we can actually harness the physics of quantum mechanics to develop practical applications,” says Kate Waimey Timmerman, executive director, Chicago Quantum Exchange, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
—Kate Waimey Timmerman, Chicago Quantum Exchange, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Going to Extremes
Chicago Quantum Exchange is a consortium that includes two of the five official U.S. quantum research hubs. One of those hubs, Fermilab, is collaborating with several organizations, including the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics, on a project that could help remove one of the main barriers keeping quantum computing out of the mainstream—getting the technology to perform reliably and effectively under normal conditions.
Right now, quantum computing works generally best only in an extreme environment, generally hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit below zero. That limitation prevents quantum computing from becoming a desktop reality. The Fermilab project aims to identify which factors make quantum machines so fragile, and whether different materials might contribute to greater durability and wider use.
Other ongoing projects are focused on exploring potential commercial applications. In January, German automaker Daimler AG and U.S. computing giant IBM announced that they had used quantum computing to gain a critical insight into the performance of lithium batteries, which could help usher in next-gen lithium-sulfur technology that is more powerful, longer-lasting and less expensive than conventional lithium. In June, U.S. AI startup SavantX unveiled a product that uses quantum computing to help logistics companies operate more efficiently. And in August, Amazon released a quantum version of its Amazon Web Services hosting product, enabling customers to test algorithms on cloud-based, simulated quantum computers.
Adjacent technologies, such as quantum sensing, also are making inroads. Quantum sensors have the potential to take measurements with more sensitivity and greater speed than existing tools. In the United Kingdom, two British universities are working with several engineering firms to determine whether quantum sensors could eliminate the need for certain digging and drilling projects by detecting and monitoring objects below ground. Scientists are also testing quantum sensing in biological applications, both to monitor the temperature of living cells and to manipulate that temperature—work that could ultimately affect treatment of infectious diseases.
No matter the application, advances in quantum computing have outpaced the project talent needed to push the nascent tech forward.
“Already there’s a significantly greater need than there are actual people coming out of universities who are quantum-ready,” says Timmerman. “By building collaboration across industries and among universities, we are trying to increase the number of students and trainees who are prepared, and who understand the breadth of the opportunities available to them.”
As those opportunities emerge, forward-thinking project leaders must be ready to adapt their resourcing and risk assessments to align with the unknowns and uncertainties of quantum possibilities.
“Even as we’re developing and scaling these new technologies and tools, many of the potential applications that will eventually be developed have not even been theorized yet,” Timmerman says. “Nobody really knows where we’re headed.”