Quantum Computing; Gamechanger

What in the devil are the boffins cooking up now?

Quantum Computing is a pretty mainstream subject in both the academic and research communities, (which I guess are really the same thing), but has yet to ping popular imagination. It will. 

Anyone laughing will be thrown out of the class

I described it to the kids thus, “Believe me kids; this thing is going to be a game changer. The way you look at me blankly when I say my first computer had 128k of memory……… had no mobiles, no internet, no switch cards, (there was something infinitely more elegant about paying a restaurant bill with a cheque), no digital photography, had to go to the television to change channels, no satellite television, no GPS … blah blah – well, your kids will do the same because they’ll be from the Quantum Age, not the old fashioned Digital Age.”

My understanding of Quantum Computing is close to that of a babbling 9 month old baby but I’m tracking it and working my way up toward being a fully functioning and coherent 24 month old toddler in computing terms. If you're the same, the introductory video above presents a starter for ten.

There are lots of resources available on the web for those who care to look but this piece by Ilyas Khan, CEO of Cambridge Quantum Computing serves as a pretty good orientation piece for us non scientists and sets the scene perfectly,

2015 - the year of Quantum Computing

Richard Feynman, the great American physicist, famously popularised the notion of Quantum Computing in 1982. In the 3 decades since that time, the prospect of a computer that captures, manipulates and controls sub-atomic particles in a manner such that data can be encoded and retrieved in ways that expand beyond ready comprehension the complexity of computational problems, and deliver results in time frames that seem more akin to science fiction than fact, has remained largely elusive. Research and development has been the domain of university labs and occasional multi-agency projects, with an obvious and understandable concentration of energy around matters of national security given the fact that quantum communications will render obsolete existing methods and devices.

That things were starting to change only gradually became apparent in the past 24 to 36 months. A startling series of engineering advances and the slow realisation that large corporations have been allocating serious resources to this sector has meant that a quantum computer is no longer seen as belonging on the pages of a science fiction novel.

The pace of change (or at least the pace at which new advances have received a public audience) has shifted rather dramatically. Time chose to adorn a cover page with a quantum computer just about a year ago and within the last quarter of 2014 Microsoft, Google, IBM and Toshiba all announced, commented on or unveiled aspects of there Quantum Computing projects.

When quantum computers emerge into common usage (and it is now only a question of when, not if), the machines will benefit from developments in quantum mechanics that span the post second world war period. From the monumental shift of understanding represented by quantum tunnelling (Brian Josephson won a Nobel prize for his work in this area and this link to an article in Physics World is very accessible ), to IBM's Bennett who is credited with the reversible gate  , or the advances represented by Shor's algorithm  and Kitaev's work on toplogical quantum computing, the past two years in particular have seen a convergence of academic work with early commercialisation.

Despite this, the vast majority of us are blissfully unaware of these developments that have been described as having an influence on human kind that will ultimately rival that of the industrial revolution. Perhaps Arkwright's machine and Stephenson's engine were equally remote from people's everyday lives when they were first unveiled.

There is no way in which the hugely diverse (and hugely competitive) work that is being done by corporate organisations and governments who are in a race, can be hidden for much longer. They are in a race not only to be first, but a race not to be left behind.

The Chinese factor looms large in this context. China has officially stated that there is simply no budget (note, not that there is no limit to a budget, but that there is simply no budget and whatever is required to be spent will be spent) and the longest and most advanced quantum communications link has been completed in China through a "pipe" that links Beijing with Shanghai. The Chinese project on Quantum Computing is not only large and well funded, but also covers much more than national security. Watch out for a great deal more news emerging from Chinese groups.

The early front runner in making actual machines is a North American effort that is funded by the private sector (Jeff Bezos, Goldman Sachs and VC firm Draper Fisher amongst others) and In-Q-Tel the investment arm of the CIA. After three years during which the company has endured the brickbats of academia for not being able to adequately and consistently display quantum speedup, D-Wave in late 2014 promised a new version of their quantum computer with a 1024 bit CPU that they claim will radically alter the landscape. Regardless however of D-Wave, the stakes are now considerably higher. Microsoft, through their effort named "Station Q" have already built an initial operating system that they have named LiquI> (pronounced liquit with the notation fashioned after the symbol for the Ket Vector). Google have gone public with their ambitious effort led by John Martinis described by Technology Review as "changing computing forever and perhaps in financial terms, the most obviously significant efforts were announced by IBM in a US$3bn effort.

Companies as diverse as Intel, Qualcomm, CISCO and Toshiba have their very futures at stake and whilst its not obvious how they are reacting, the one thing that is very clear is that they have stopped simply "observing". And finally, in perhaps the truest sign that quantum computing is no longer an academic exercise, a clutch of start ups have come into existence with more almost certainly to emerge.

2015 will be the year that Quantum Computing comes into the mainstream, and we all need to know what is happening.

Ilyas Khan (Cambridge Quantum Computing)