China and the United States vie for the supremacy of quantum computing

About an hour north of Manhattan, at IBM’s headquarters for research, an employee walks up to a glass door, leans down, and looks into a camera lens to open it with his eyeball .

We enter a dark room with a glass cube the size of a jeep.

“This is a real quantum computer,” says Scott Crowder, IBM’s vice president for quantum adoption.

In the center of it, suspended from the ceiling, is a shiny metallic cylinder the size of a barrel of oil.

“This shiny thing you see is where we keep our quantum processor. It must be really, really, really, really cold,” he said. “Like 100 times colder than outer space.”

There’s a hum in the background as the pumps create vacuums inside the computer to help it become cosmically cool. It’s at such a low temperature that materials begin to exhibit the weird physics at the heart of what a quantum computer does.

“It can store and manipulate information in entirely new ways using the laws of quantum mechanics,” said John Martinis, a physics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who worked on the quantum computing program. from Google.

The laws of quantum mechanics are, as Einstein called them, frightening. At the atomic level, particles can be in two states or even in two places at the same time. A quantum computer exploits this frightening.

“The basic idea here is that in classical computation your data is represented by bits, which can be zero or one, and in quantum computation you have quantum bits or qubits. And it can be a mix of zero and one at the same time,” Martinis explained.

There’s a lot more to it, but the fact is that it could allow quantum computers to do the kinds of calculations that traditional computers aren’t good at, Martinis said, “much, much faster than any what a supercomputer”. Martinis was involved in the groundbreaking experiment in 2019 that demonstrated what is called quantum supremacy, where Google said its quantum computer was the first to perform a calculation that would be nearly impossible for a conventional computer. A group of Chinese scientists later showed that ordinary computers could, in some way, also take on this task.

The hope is not that quantum computers will be faster or better for every problem, but rather for particular, complex problems.

“Simulating nature, so things like new drug discovery, new material development,” Crowder said. Mercedes Benz wants to use it to better understand the chaotic chemistry of batteries, for example.

Quantum computers might be able to help find patterns in complex data, Crowder said, “which therefore has applications in things like artificial intelligence and machine learning.” In a sea of ​​bank transactions, which are fraudulent?

They can also excel in what is called optimization. When a problem has a million options – say, say, a million different ways to lay out the floors in a factory – which one is the most effective? “So I can think about finance, portfolio optimization,” Crowder said.

There could of course be other uses not yet imagined.

But what has caught the attention of national security officials around the world is that quantum computing could one day break the encryption that protects just about everything on the internet — from your bank passwords to messages. companies, said Greg Allen, senior fellow in the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“China’s strategy is to intercept and download large amounts of encrypted data now in anticipation that within the next decade or two they will have quantum computers powerful enough to crack that encryption,” did he declare. The United States is currently in the process of developing quantum resistant encryption.

With all this potential for chaos and progress, investment money is pouring in.

“We project that by 2027, more than $16.4 billion will be invested in quantum computing,” said Heather West, research manager at IDC. “And it will be private investment, it will be investment in research and development, it will be government investment.”

There are now at least 89 quantum computing startups in the United States alone.

“There’s a tsunami of hype about what quantum computers are going to revolutionize,” said Scott Aaronson, professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. “Quantum computing has become a word that venture capitalists or people looking for public funding will sprinkle on anything because it sounds good.”

Aaronson cautioned that we can’t be sure these computers will actually revolutionize machine learning and funding and optimization issues. “We can’t prove that there isn’t a quantum algorithm that solves all these problems very quickly, but we can’t even prove that there isn’t an algorithm for a conventional computer that does it. do,” he said.

Back at IBM, Scott Crowder was well aware of the risk of over-promising what quantum computers can do.

“Quantum computers aren’t big enough or good enough yet to replace classical or do something that you can’t do on a classical computer yet,” he said. “That’s why we say that’s exactly what we have to do and deliver year after year to get there.”

IBM has released a roadmap for how it intends to evolve its quantum computers.

There are hundreds of research institutes, private companies and universities connecting to developing quantum computers. IBM has 190 partners exploring their technology.

“We have open access, which basically means free access for people to explore the technology and understand it, we have over 400,000 people who have signed up to use this open cloud access,” Crowder said.

Chinese tech giant Baidu has developed a quantum computer it calls Qian Shi and lets people interact with its quantum chips through an app.

For now though, as technology develops, the main reason people use quantum computing is to figure out how they might use quantum computing.

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