The advent of the quantum era

The advent of the quantum era

It’s been a quarter of a century since the first quantum bits, or qubits, were strung together to make a rudimentary quantum computer. With their ability to represent both ones and zeros in traditional computers at the same time, qubits are the most basic components of systems that could far surpass today’s computers in solving certain types of problems. Since then, advances have depended less on hard science than on applied engineering: creating more stable qubits that can hold their quantum state for more than a tiny fraction of a second, linking them together into larger systems, and coming up with new shapes of programming to exploit the features of the technology.

This can be compared to what happened in the early days of traditional computing, after the invention of the transistor in the 1940s and the integrated circuit in 1958. In retrospect, it was the steady, exponential progress in capacity described by Moore’s Law that carried computers into the mainstream , seems inexorable.

The quantum age is unlikely to unfold with the same sense of metronomic inevitability. It has the potential to deliver big surprises, both on the upside and the downside. A global race is underway to devise new techniques to control and exploit quantum effects and create far more efficient algorithms – increasing the possibility of sudden leaps in performance.

One such surprise came with the publication of Chinese research proposing a way to crack the most common form of online encryption using a quantum computer similar to those already available. It was expected that this feat – a potential “Sputnik moment” – would require much more advanced quantum systems for many years to come.

Other cybersecurity experts ultimately concluded that this method was unlikely to work in practice. One question is why China would have allowed its publication, if it had indeed shown a way to expose most of the world’s secret communications. Still, it produced another jolt and should be a wake-up call to anyone, particularly in the US, who worries about the risks of China developing technological supremacy.

Many companies in industries such as chemicals, banking and automobile manufacturing have invested in learning how to program quantum systems in the hope that the first practical uses could come soon. In modeling complex financial risks, designing new molecules, and speeding up data processing in machine learning systems, quantum systems could gain an advantage as soon as they become even slightly cheaper or faster than existing computers.

This moment of “quantum advantage”—when systems demonstrate practical, if modest, superiority in certain problems—still lies, tantalizingly, just within reach. With investment and expectations on the rise, the potential for short-term disappointment is high, even if the long-term potential appears unchanged.

It’s still hard to keep qubits in their quantum state long enough to perform useful calculations. The next frontier lies in inventing some form of error correction that uses some of the qubits to counteract the “noise” caused by this lack of coherence. Recent research suggests that progress is being made in solving this problem faster than expected.

The potential for breakthroughs in areas like error correction has raised the chance of a quantum shock — when machines make the leap from fascinating science experiment to world-changing technology. Based on the apparently flawed Chinese encryption paper, it is disingenuous to predict that this moment is already at hand. But with so much effort worldwide to harness the properties of quantum mechanics for computing, it might still be remiss to postpone a serious consideration of the promises—and the risks—for another day.

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