While quantum computing may sound like a concept straight out of a sci-fi novel, many experts feel it’s simply the next inevitable step of technological progress. While Artificial Intelligence (AI) grabs all the headlines, countries are quietly funneling billions of dollars into quantum research, each hoping to emerge as the first quantum superpower.
We spoke to William Hurley (Whurley), author of Quantum Computing for Babies, a visionary in the field, who is on a mission to connect quantum hardware to the organizations who can use them.
Q. Whurley, you’ve done a lot of different things in your career, from your early days as an engineer at tech megafirms like Apple and IBM to being an entrepreneur yourself. So, why quantum?
A. People are always looking for that next “paradigm shift,” and it’s often overhyped and overblown. But in the case of quantum computing, it’s really not. In fact, calling it a paradigm shift is something of an understatement. This is very cutting-edge stuff, it’s super, super cool and it will change the world in many, many ways.
Q: First, I suppose, it would be helpful to hear you define what quantum computing is.
A: On a basic level, think about a coin toss—heads or tails on a flat surface. If it’s heads, it’s a one; if it's tails, it’s a zero. That’s how you can think of classical architecture. Quantum computing is like the coin being tossed in the air. It’s in a constant state of one, zero, or maybe both. We don’t know what it is until we stop it in our hand. The first thing you hear about quantum computing is that classical bits are dead, quantum computing will replace classical computing, and it will change the world forever. I think it may someday do those things; but for now, think of quantum computing implementations more as a GPU, a cloud processor, or a co-processor.
Q: So, what does a quantum computer look like? I’m envisioning a robotic arm flipping a coin!
A: Ha. Well, not quite. There are three types of quantum computers right now:
Even though there are a few different ways to create qubits, they all look pretty much the same—a big cylinder or in the case of the D-Wave, a cube. If you look inside a quantum computer, they all look like a big chamber with a giant chandelier inside. The bottom-most part that chandelier is the actual quantum computer. The rest of the structure is for cooling the particles down to anywhere between 5mK to 15mK.
Q: Since when has quantum computing been a thing?
A: Quantum computing has actually been around for a long time. The concept itself was coined in 1982, but it goes further back than that. In 1927 at the Solvay conference, some of the biggest physicists in the world—Schrodinger, Einstein, and Heisenberg—discussed the newly formulated quantum theory. From there, came the concept of Schrodinger’s cat, entanglement, and a bunch of other things like the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox. These concepts laid the foundation for what Feynman, Benioff, and Manin came up with in the 80s. We started seeing quantum algorithms in the 90s and the first hardware in the 00s. But in 2014, you really see a sudden uptick in terms of investments, startups, patents, and material science advantages. Right now, we’re on the precipice of it actually becoming a reality.
Q: Why now? Why the sudden urgency and effort?
A: The basis of classical computing is ones and zeros. If we block a signal, it’s a zero. If we let a signal through, it’s a one. Computers are giant abacuses, but at the same time, they are also getting very small. The smartphone you have is powered by 10nm chips with three billion transistors in it. These devices are getting so small that some scientists worry that once we get to 7nm, 5nm, and 3nm, quantum mechanics will come into effect, and we won’t be able to block signals. Quantum tunneling—where you try to block a signal, but it gets through anyway—will happen sooner or later. And when it happens, improvements in classical computing will slow down dramatically.
Q: Is that what’s meant by quantum supremacy?
A: A lot of people use the term quantum supremacy. I understand the term; but, I’m not a big fan of it because it gives the impression to people in the industry that somehow a quantum computer will replace a classical one. That’s not the case. We need the classical computer to control all of the data in and out, the cryogenics, and basically everything in the system. We take it from the classical computer, we send control information in, and then send it out again. I don’t think a quantum computer is something you run everything on because to do that in the near future, you’d need millions and millions and millions of qubits. We’ve only achieved about 72 qubits to date. So, think of a quantum computer more like a co-processor.
Q: Will it be an easy transition for today’s software and hardware engineers to factor quantum computing into the equation?
A: Well, in a classical computer you have circuits, modules, gates, and transistors. In the old days, you had to be an engineer to program a computer because you had to understand the voltage between the gates. Then, sometime later, you just had to understand the gates. Now, we have software engineers who don’t even know there are gates. So these things are typically a progression. Right now, you have to be a physicist to program a quantum computer. The goal is to take quantum computing to the place where you only have to know the gates and then have some abstraction layer so you can use it for whatever you’re doing.
Q: Which leads me to possibly the most important question, what CAN you actually do with a quantum computer?
A: Quantum computers help us to solve really big problems. Take the classic traveling salesperson example. You have a computer that does 10 to the ninth operations per second, and you want to send your salesperson to 14 cities using the shortest path there and back. It takes a classical computer about 1000 seconds to find the solution to that if one were to check all the combinations of tours. If you have to send your salesperson to 22 cities, it takes a classical computer about 1600 years to find the solution. And if you want your salesperson to go to 28 cities, it takes longer than the amount of time in the known universe for the classical computer to calculate the answer. Quantum computers can solve that problem in a reasonable amount of time.
Another great example is how quantum computing could revolutionize chemistry and scientific research. Take the caffeine molecule. There are 95 electrons in a caffeine molecule, and you can go to great extents to model it. When you think of the memory compute size you need to model a caffeine module on classical architecture, it is astronomically huge and impossible. However, you could do those same modeling on a quantum computer with 160 qubits. We’re at 72 qubits already. The rumor is that we’ll be at 150-200 by the end of the year; though granted, we still have a fidelity problem. Anyway, we could use quantum computers to solve these very big, very difficult mathematical modeling problems. It will improve search algorithms, AI, machine learning, and traffic as well as help find cures for diseases and global warming. Today, most climate studies aren’t accurate because you’re using a classical system to model a quantum mechanical world. Since nature is quantum mechanical, quantum computers would likely make better climate models that could be more accurate and give better data than the approximate guesswork we are doing today.
We want to solve all these problems now, but we don’t have the compute power. Quantum computing will take us to that compute power. I think we’ll have 1000 qubits in the next 3-5 years. The trip from 1000 to 10,000 is relatively short. Once you get to 10,000, you can start looking to millions of qubits. Do I think we’ll have millions of qubits in 5 years? No, but as the technology advances, we can use the technology to solve some of the problems and material science modeling so it accelerates it even further.
Q: Would it give a potentially unfair advantage to a country if it cracks quantum before the rest of the world?
A: A lot of countries talk about quantum computing in terms of national security, but every single quantum researcher is working with others from around the world right now. So if you want progress, you can’t lock it down. I think this should be an open-source technology. I think it should be a world-based technology—democratized as many things that affect our lives should be. There are a ton of universities worldwide working on the topic. Quantum computing, not AI, is the space race for our generation. Because there’s more money being invested, risks with encryption threats, potential to cure diseases, and capability to do things, it’s an incredibly important area.
Q: How does one get involved in quantum computing?
A: I would encourage everyone to get involved. Big companies are starting programs for developers. There are also many open-source programs. Don’t be afraid. If you’re interested in quantum computing and the future, be inspired.
A regular speaker on the tech conference circuit and a Senior Director at FTI Consulting, SJ Barak is an authority on the electronics space, social media in a b2b context, digital content creation and distribution. She has a passion for gadgets, electronics, and science fiction.
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