The D-Wave 2000Q is no longer the only quantum computer out there.
After spending years in the realm of theory and even more in development, quantum computers are about to define and conquer their niche in the data-crunching market.
Alibaba, China’s rival to Amazon, recently announced that it’s offering quantum computing services to its cloud customers. Its quantum machine is rated as the world’s second-fastest, lagging only behind one built by Intel and IBM, which is already serving customers in the cloud.
Microsoft is also getting into the quantum game, investing tens of millions in partnership with the University of Copenhagen. Also joining the fray is Google, which hopes to be on-line with a 72-qubit chip, which Google physicist John Martinis says will give them “quantum supremacy”.
QUBIT OR NOT QUBIT
Conventional computers manipulate digital “bits”, stored as ones or zeros, commonly known as the binary system. Quantum computers use “qubits”, which, thanks to the eccentricities of quantum physics, can represent a zero, a one, any value between one and zero, or both one and zero simultaneously. Therefore, quantum’s potential applications are nearly limitless.
As a conventional bit represents only one value, a single qubit can hold vastly more information. By ganging together several qubits, a quantum computer exponentially increases the number of ideas or solutions it can generate at the same instant. Wrap your brain around that possibility.
SMART ENERGY, TOO
Despite the big tech names involved, it’s a specialized niche: the technology is quite complex and the development cost high. But because quantum computers work faster than silicon-based machines, they also save significant amounts of energy.
Quantum computers promise the ability to eventually operate as much as 100,000 times faster than the notebook computer or tower on your desk, in part because its components simultaneously act as memory and processor.
This means that a quantum computer can analyze staggeringly difficult problems, such as figuring out how a complex protein folds inside a human cell, returning a myriad of probable solutions in micro-seconds.
Note: Quantum computers typically “think” in terms of probabilities, not certainties, often leaving humans with the task of then choosing the best solution to a problem.
And the complexity doesn’t end there. Qubits are exquisitely sensitive to external disturbances, so D-Wave’s machine, for example, operates at a temperature just 0.015°F above absolute zero. It also screens out the Earth’s magnetic field and sequesters its qubits in a vacuum, claiming to reduce everyday air pressure by ten billion times.
These amazing capabilities dramatically cut down on the normal environmental interferences and “noise” that traditional computers, and the humans around them face, allowing for much smoother functioning even under harsh conditions.
So far, qubits have found their most comfortable home inside metal atoms, such as phosphorus, governed by precisely controlled magnetic fields. But now, researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales have designed a quantum computer that puts its qubits in silicon chips, managing them with electricity instead of magnetism. This will make it far easier for quantum computing systems to integrate with today’s standard silicon-based computers. And cheaper, too.
It has also allowed the University’s team to dream of surpassing Alibaba’s current 11-qubit design and IBM’s 20-qubit machine, on the way to creating the industry’s holy grail of a standard 30-qubit computer. In practical terms, a 30-qubit computer would work 1,000 times faster than today’s notebooks. Recently, the University created a tech company, Silicon Quantum Computing, to commercialize their creation. It’s to be seen if they can surpass Google’s incredible 72-qubit vision of the future.