quantum race
October 23, 2015

Race to build first quantum computer could match space and arms races

Quantum information, also known as quantum computing, could be about to explode. Within 15 years it could change information technology forever, but the science behind it is so high-level that giant tech companies don't quite seem to know how to start dipping their toes in.

Today marks the opening of the Yale Quantum Institute, a state-of-the-art research hub aimed at revolutionizing the way digital information is stored, processed, and safeguarded. It will bring together leading physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers from Yale and around the world.

But with the potential power of quantum information being so huge, this is not just about cooperation. The search has become a race between countries, multinationals, and academic institutions—all of which have a desire to get there first.

RedOrbit spoke to Robert Schoelkopf and Douglas Stone, the director and deputy director of the Yale Quantum Institute.

"Quantum computing is a new paradigm for how to store and process information," Schoelkopf explained. "The basic idea is to take the bits of information in a regular computer, the zeros and the ones - the 'atoms' of information - and replace them with their quantum equivalents (known as qubits).

"A quantum bit can represent a zero and a one at the same time. It can be put in a superposition: It can be simultaneously in two states, just like an atom."

Stone continued: "Einstein was the first to notice this property called entanglement, in which two separate quantum systems become very correlated at a distance, like two magic coins far apart. And if you flip one and get a heads, the other instantaneously becomes a tails far away.

"The superposition makes computing more powerful, and if you add this entanglement it becomes exponentially more powerful. Suddenly it seems that with quantum computing we could know things we could have never figured out with classic computing."

One major application is to extend the capacity of computing, dealing with what's known as Moore's law, a law concerning the inability of current systems to cope with what we are coming to expect of and require from modern computing. We need a solution before the current system "runs out of steam", as Schoelkopf puts it.

But giving us enough power to do what we're already doing is only a tiny part of what quantum computing could contribute.

"Right now the major applications are likely to be scientific and military, but that's also what the first regular computers were originally applied to," Schoelkopf said.

The race is on

"The concept that a quantum computer could become a supercomputer way beyond anything we could possibly imagine from conventional technology is something that started in the 90s," Stone explained. "Now it's become a worldwide race in physics. You hear a lot about the Higgs Boson and black holes, but one of the holy grails is to figure out the best hardware for this type of information processing."

Several different players are in the hardware "race", with different projects all having very complex problems. The hardware at Yale has to be worked on in temperatures a hundredth of a degree above absolute zero.

"This is hardware so far beyond what they do in conventional computers," Stone pointed out. "There's no other technology that we rely on consistently that requires that."

Other related hardware requires working in vacuums or trapping ions, so quantum computers aren't going to be churned out by giant factories anytime soon.

"We don't really anticipate for the time being that people will begin carrying quantum computers in their pocket," Schoelkopf said. But behind the scenes the speed at which things are working will start to impact people long before they begin buying quantum computers for Christmas. "There are applications such as cryptology, designing new drugs, facial recognition and searching through databases," he added.

"Siri could get a lot smarter too!" Stone suggests. He also pointed out that "the explosion in excitement really started when mathematicians started to realize you could break codes that were considered unbreakable. It's such an important application in the information age."

Cracking codes and improving security simultaneously

"Quantum information has the very special property that it can't be copied," Schoelkopf said. "Paradoxically it might help people break conventional codes, but it could also help to find new ways of secure communication and helping to ensure people's privacy."

There is also potential for "blind" quantum computing, where you work in the cloud, but people providing the resource would never know what you were doing.

"We're still talking 10, 15 years away, but this is a tipping point in the field," Schoelkopf explained. "This is something that's coming in a timescale where we have to start thinking about who's going to win the race and when this will start to be applied in the real world."

"The teaming up between industry and academia is coming soon," Stone concluded.

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