FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno
For some years now, part of the technology industry has been playing in a new league: that of quantum computing. In January 2019, for example, IBM succeeded in being the first company to release from the laboratories a computer that performs this type of calculation. Companies and research teams believe that quantum computing will be able to solve computer problems that were previously impossible, and they have already created models in the cloud that incorporate machines capable of doing so. What does this all mean?
First, some clarifications are in order. As a unit of information, quantum computing requires the quantum bit or qubit, which takes advantage of physics principles like superposition, and can simultaneously represent the values 0 or 1, unlike the bit, which is the representation of a binary number system (0 or 1). This feature gives quantum computers an exponentially higher calculation potential than conventional ones.
At the moment, classical computing has a problem, which is that "it is already encountering the great barrier of the atomic scale, where quantum effects are inevitable," says Miguel Ángel Martín-Delgado, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid. For that reason, he believes that in the 2020s "the need to use quantum mechanics to do computation will shoot up," both from a theoretical perspective as well as an experimental one, since it has already been amply demonstrated that this model works, he says.
The current goal of research centres and companies, therefore, is to achieve the quantum advantage, that is, that a quantum machine can solve some important calculation problem that no classical computer can overcome. An example may be to generate a correct representation of the quantum chemistry of a molecule (in other words, its fundamental behaviour), something that is difficult for even the most powerful classical computers, explains Martín-Delgado. A machine capable of achieving the quantum advantage has not yet been developed, but the expert sees it as likely to occur "within five years."
Meanwhile, various companies have already turned to the development of quantum computers that are increasingly resistant and adaptable to environmental conditions (although still imperfect). The difficulty, adds the professor, lies in the fact that building them entails major challenges: they can only work at temperatures close to absolute zero (-273 Cº) and they need special housing systems, as well as highly specialised maintenance equipment. This means that in order to be useful, quantum computers will have to interact with other computers through the Internet when providing their services, he says.
IBM Q Network collaborators will work with IBM scientists and engineers to explore potential applications for quantum systems. Credit: IBM.
Qubits in the cloud
Because of their "strategic" value, says Martín-Delgado, the model that is being developed envisages keeping these computers in a central position vis-à-vis a series of peripheral classic computers. "They're not going to go directly to the desk in a house or an office, but rather they are going to compete with the best current standard computers, like IBM's Watson or Google's AlphaGo and AlphaZero."
This cloud architecture, therefore, works in a similar way to the classic set up, but has a "quantum heart," says the expert. It is a hybrid cloud that does not eliminate the need for conventional computers. "A lot of routine information processing is still necessary, which can be done with them."
The idea of companies like IBM is to sell quantum computers to companies, install them in centres suitable for their maintenance and offer the possibility of connecting to them with classic devices that request the execution of tasks. Thus, for example, a pharmaceutical company could ask a quantum machine, through a program developed with classical computing, to analyse a molecule of interest for a given application, Martín-Delgado says. Other industries could work in the same way, such as a bank, an insurer or an oil company, he adds.
The costs, in his opinion, would not be prohibitive. As an example, Q System 1, the quantum computer presented by IBM at the CES in Las Vegas in January as the first such device suitable for commercial use, may be within reach "of any medium-sized company in the US."
In fact, it is already possible to experience how the quantum cloud works. For this purpose, simulators are offered free of charge to the community of developers, which can be found on the website of the US multinational. Useful codes are made freely available on the website to learn quantum programming. Martín-Delgado says he uses them in class with his students. "If you apply an algorithm to do searches, you notice that they are faster than a classic computer."
The machine capable of achieving the quantum advantage does not exist, but they begin to test new computers, such as the IBM Q System One, which anticipate what is to come. Credit: IBM.
The professor indicates that quantum computing, in addition to being faster and allowing problems of great complexity to be solved, also guarantees more storage capacity and more security. And the upcoming arrival of 5G will increase the connection possibilities for systems that have a quantum core, he says.
Even longer-term perspectives are already on the horizon: the first, now in the experimental phase, is blind quantum computing, a security protocol that allows calculations in the cloud to be encrypted so that those responsible for the maintenance of a quantum machine cannot access them without permission; the second is the Quantum Internet, a network in which both the nodes and the communication channels are quantum, which "would exponentially increase their storage power." Martín-Delgado clarifies that this type of Internet is still far away, but he does not hesitate to assert that quantum computers will open "a new frontier of knowledge" for humanity.
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.