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Dilution refrigerator
A team member at D-Wave Systems, based in Burnaby, B.C.,, works on the dilution refrigerator system that cools the processors in the company’s quantum computer. (D-Wave Systems Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The small world of quantum physics is a big deal on the frontier of computer science.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella rates quantum computing as one of three key technologies that will shape his company’s future, along with artificial intelligence and mixed reality. Google and NASA are working with D-Wave Systems to blaze a quantum trail. IBM has its Q initiative, and Boeing’s newly formed Disruptive Computing & Networks unit is targeting quantum as well.

There’s been a White House summit on quantum information science, and Congress is considering legislation that’d give quantum computing a $1.3 billion boost over the next 10 years.

What’s going on?

Actually, not a whole lot as of yet. Sure, D-Wave’s computer can take on some specific quantum tasks, but that doesn’t mean a general-purpose, universal computer that takes advantage of all the weird properties of quantum physics is just around the corner.

“It’s 20 years off, and expected to remain so for the next 20 years,” said Chad Orzel, a physicist at Union College and author of the book “How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog.”

So why is quantum computing getting so much attention? Orzel and other experts addressed that question last weekend during the ScienceWriters 2018 conference at George Washington University.

One key to understanding the interest is, well, to understand keys. We’re not talking about the keys for hotel rooms or bike locks. Rather, we’re talking about the cryptographic keys that ensure your information is secure when you purchase something from Amazon or make an online bank transfer.

One of the specialized tasks that quantum computers could take on is prime-number factorization, which is at the heart of current data encryption algorithms. It’s relatively easy to calculate the product of two prime numbers, but much harder to reverse that calculation unless you know one of the prime numbers. At least that’s the way it works for classical computers, and that fact helps protect your data.

Quantum computers could take advantage of the weird superposition of ones and zeroes to crack the code and render current encryption methods obsolete. The ability to perform that function “is way beyond what we have now, but people are working on that,” Orzel said.

As researchers chip away at factorization, they’re making progress on more manageable quantum tasks.

“The quantum simulation side of things is much closer,” Orzel said. “Arguably, we’re at that point now. … That’s 100 percent going to be successful.”

In August, for example, D-Wave researchers reported that their 2000Q computer could simulate a quantum phase transition associated with superconductivity — a task that’s much harder to do with a purely classical computer.

Quantum simulations could also be applied to the molecular-level design of exotic materials for use in next-generation batteries and electronic devices.

Other applications could encode information in such a way that any attempt to eavesdrop on a transmission could be easily detected and foiled. In a review published today by the journal Science, researchers at Delft University in the Netherlands say such applications could provide the first building blocks for a “quantum internet” within the next five years.

Quantum computing panel
Union College’s Chad Orzel, Nature’s Elizabeth Gibney and the University of Maryland’s Christopher Monroe and Emily Edwards participate in a panel on quantum computing at the ScienceWriters 2018 conference. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Boeing’s interest focuses not only on secure communications, but also on network optimization — another type of task that quantum computers should be able to do more quickly and easily than classical computers.

“We are always looking at very complex optimization problems in our business,” Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer, told GeekWire this week. “Those are always very difficult to solve computationally.”

In order for programmers to take advantage of quantum computers, they’ll need software platforms optimized for those computers. Microsoft has the Q# programming language, IBM has a platform known as Qiskit, and D-Wave has unveiled a cloud-based platform called the Leap Quantum Application Environment.

Nadella says Microsoft is into quantum computing for the long haul. “We have taken an approach saying, look, let’s go for the general-purpose quantum computer, because that’s the prize, as opposed to worrying about the short term,” he said last year during a gathering organized by the Microsoft Alumni Network.

To some extent, the upswing in resources devoted to quantum computing research is part of a corporate defensive strategy, said University of Maryland physicist Christopher Monroe, who’s a fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute. “If IBM and Google are doing it, Microsoft better be doing it, too,” he said.

Will all those companies, or at least one of those companies, be able to leap over all the technical hurdles that stand in the way of full-fledged quantum computers?

“I find it hard to believe there’s a fundamental reason why we won’t be able to,” Monroe said. “But running out of money will be a practical reason. Actually, it’s not just a joke. If we don’t find near-term applications, nobody’s going to pay for it. The science will always be there, but I think the industrial involvement … if that stops, that’s a bellwether that we’re in trouble in terms of making a really big system in the long-term future.”

GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, one of the organizers of the annual ScienceWriters conference. For more from Orzel about quantum computing, check out his Forbes essay: “What Is a Quantum Computer? The 30,000-Foot Overview.” 

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