How Far Are the Mountains Now?By
When you review the progress made in various areas of quantum computing in 2021, you might detect a sense of inevitability that wasn’t evident last year.
Digital quantum hasn’t arrived yet, but we’re farther along the road; we’re now among the foothills on the way to its transformational power. Financial applications are already in development, so the time to investigate and prepare has arrived.
Quantum computing doesn’t look like it will be producing general computing machines. As Gartner analyst Chirag Dekate explained at the Xpo 2021 Americas, “Quantum computing is not a general-purpose technology—we cannot use quantum computing to address all the business problems that we currently experience.” For the near future, we can probably expect quantum machines to specialize, and the first fully functional quantum computers won’t replace but rather will work alongside classical computers and networks.
Advances in quantum this year were wide-ranging. Here’s just a sampling from various areas of development.
Volkswagen. The German automaker was involved early when in 2016 it created a quantum project for real-time traffic routing. Now, it’s introduced quantum computing in assembly-line paint shops to maximize efficiency, and Volkswagen uses it also to establish model pricing and to decide where best to install charging stations.
Diamonds. There were two especially interesting experiments with quantum hardware this year. Both involve the nanofabrication of unique materials—a synthetic diamond with an intentional flaw for manipulating photons and a two-dimensional superconductive material called graphene.
In May, an Australian research team created a diamond-based quantum photonic circuitry, explaining the challenge in a research paper: “For diamond to be used in quantum applications, we need to precisely engineer ‘optical defects’ in the diamond devices—cavities and waveguides—to control, manipulate and readout information in the form of qubits—the quantum version of classical computer bits.” Most difficult was creating the defects. “It’s akin to cutting holes or carving gullies in a super thin sheet of diamond, to ensure the light travels and bounces in the desired direction.”
Meanwhile, at about the same time, MIT researchers were experimenting with a “magic material” called graphene to build a better quantum computer. Graphene is a bizarre two-dimensional material that’s a one-atom-thick layer of carbon arranged in a honeycomb structure. So far, MIT researchers have designed three new quantum electric devices with it: a superconducting switch, a spectroscopic tunneling device, and a single-electron transistor.
Quantum AI. In May, Google unveiled its new Quantum AI campus in Santa Barbara, Calif. The press release explained, “This campus includes our first quantum data center, our quantum hardware research laboratories, and our own quantum processor chip fabrication facilities. Here, our team is working to build an error-corrected quantum computer for the world.”
Desktop quantum. In August, the Australian hardware manufacturer Quantum Brilliance announced its plan to deploy the world’s first room-temperature diamond computing system at the Pawsey Supercomputer Research Center in the first quarter of 2022. Mark Luo, the company’s cofounder and chief operating officer, explained, “We have a clear five-year roadmap to produce something we call quantum utility. Other systems can’t miniaturize, we can miniaturize. So for us it’s about producing a quantum computer or quantum accelerator that outperforms a classical computer of the same size, weight and power.”
Help on the road. In late September, IBM announced a program with resources for businesses at any point on their journey to quantum readiness. Called the IBM Quantum Accelerator, the mission is to help guide participants on to the road to quantum advantage, whether they are new and curious or have established quantum computing expertise.
Jiuzhang 2.0. In October, China Daily reported that “Chinese scientists have established a quantum computer prototype named ‘Jiuzhang 2.0’ with 113 detected photons.” (Photons are light particles that can function as qubits in photonic systems.) “With 113 photons,” the newspaper claimed, “‘Jiuzhang 2.0’ can implement large-scale GBS [Gaussian boson sampling; a series of tasks that measure speeds] septillion times faster than the world’s fastest existing supercomputers…. In a nutshell, it would take the fastest supercomputer about 30 trillion years to solve a problem that ‘Jiuzhang 2.0’ can solve in just one millisecond.”
As progress accelerates in different quantum sectors around the world, the goal of fully functioning quantum computing is coming into view and already available quantum services are multiplying.