Quantum Computing Becomes a Real Technology

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Quantum Computing Becomes a Real Technology

As we’ve chronicled for over a decade-and-a-half, quantum computers are coming, but it will take a while.

That’s important, because they promise to run calculations far beyond the reach of any conventional supercomputer. For instance, they could revolutionize the discovery of new materials by making it possible to simulate the behavior of matter down to the atomic level. Or they could upend cryptography and security by cracking otherwise invincible codes. There is even hope they will supercharge artificial intelligence by crunching through data more efficiently. 

Yet only now, after decades of gradual progress, are researchers finally close to building quantum computers powerful enough to do those things that conventional computers cannot. It’s a landmark somewhat theatrically dubbed “quantum supremacy.” That’s the point at which a quantum computer can do calculations beyond the reach of today’s fastest supercomputers.

Right now, Google is leading the charge toward this milestone, while Intel and Microsoft also have significant quantum efforts. And then there are well-funded startups including Rigetti Computing, IonQ, and Quantum Circuits.

Collectively, they are pursuing at least five major quantum computing approaches :

  • silicon spin qubits,
  • ion traps,
  • superconducting loops,
  • diamond vacancies, and
  • topological qubits.

In the February 2018 Trends issue, we profiled an academic consortium involving European, American, and Australian researchers developing hardware based on silicon spin qubits. That work is particularly exciting because it avoids exotic materials requiring huge support infrastructure, and relies on unique, super-cooled silicon chips that should be mass-producible and highly cost-effective. Their idea is to substitute a few qubits that must all work perfectly, with millions of qubits that are mutually “error correcting.”

However, no contender can match IBM’s pedigree in this quantum computing research. Starting 50 years ago, the company produced advances in materials science that laid the foundations for a quantum computer revolution...

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