Date posted: 29/08/2019 5 min read

5 things you didn’t know about quantum computing

Quantum computers could run millions of computations to solve massive problems in nanoseconds – if we get the tech right.

In Brief

  • Quantum computing has been identified by Gartner as one of the top strategic technology trends.
  • Unlike binary computers, which switch between 0 and 1, a quantum bit can be positioned near 0 or 1, or both, or in between. That means quantum computers can theoretically work on millions of computations at once.
  • Quantum computing will be a game changer but its potential market is tiny compared to that for smartphones and other computing devices.

By Stuart Ridley

UNSW PhD student Wister Huang, Professor Andrew Dzurak, and research fellow Dr Henry Yang in the university's quantum measurement lab.UNSW PhD student Wister Huang, Professor Andrew Dzurak, and research fellow Dr Henry Yang in the university's quantum measurement lab.

A potential quantum shift in supercomputing

Competition is heating up to build the supercomputer to beat all supercomputers. Although quantum computing has been tested only on small-scale processors, research giant Gartner lists quantum computing as one of its top 10 strategic technology trends for 2019. “Imagine a giant library of books,” says Gartner’s Kasey Panetta.

“While a classic computer would read every book in a library in a linear fashion, a quantum computer would read all the books simultaneously. Quantum computers are able to theoretically work on millions of computations at once.”

Forget the 0 and 1 of binary bits

Regular computers store information as binary bits, in the state of either 1 or 0; like a switch being on or off. But quantum computers exploit the quantum concept of ‘superposition’. A quantum bit, or ‘qubit’, represented by an electron suspended in magnetic fields and stimulated by a laser, for example, can be positioned near 0 or 1 or both or in between. It exists in an indefinite state until measured.

“Regardless of how far apart the qubits are positioned, if you measure one particle, the rest seem to know instantly… [so] the whole quantum system is greater than the sum of its parts,” William Hurley, chair of the Quantum Computing Working Group for the IEEE’s Standards Association, told Tech Crunch in November 2018.

Why we might need a lot more silicon chips for supercomputers

In 2015, a team led by Professor Andrew Dzurak at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) built the world’s first quantum logic gate in silicon, the material currently used to make computer chips. This research pointed to real opportunities to build large-scale silicon quantum processors. In May 2019, Dzurak’s team demonstrated two-qubit logic operations in silicon at 98% accuracy.

“All quantum computations can be made up of one-qubit and two-qubit operations,” explains Dzurak. “Once you’ve got those, you can perform any computation you want – but the accuracy of both operations needs to be very high… The more accurate your qubits, the fewer you need and the sooner we can realise a full-scale quantum computer.”

IBM intends to win the race

At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, IBM unveiled its closet-sized IBM Q System One, billed as the world’s first integrated quantum computing system for scientific or commercial use. IBM stated that future quantum computing applications may include “finding new ways to model financial data and isolating key global risk factors to make better investments, or finding the optimal path across global systems for ultra-efficient logistics and optimising fleet operations for deliveries.”

The quantum computing market could be worth US$50 billion… in 2030-something

Deloitte research suggests we’ll have to wait until the 2030s for the first commercial general-use quantum computers. Even then, the market will be only about US$50 billion – small change compared with the current US$1 trillion market for computing devices. Deloitte explains: “Even in 2030, none of the billions of smartphones, computers, tablets, and lower-level enterprise computing devices in use will be quantum-powered,” though they might use quantum computing in the cloud.

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