These Canadian startups are bringing quantum computing to the mainstream

Not what you would expect to find on the 29th floor of a Toronto office building. Instead of cabins, a complex arrangement of lasers, mirrors, and fiber optics stretches from floor to ceiling, making up the quantum computer called Borealis.

And Borealis recently hit a big milestone by solving a colossal math problem.

“If we were running [the problem] on the most powerful supercomputer, it would take 9,000 years. For Borealis, it takes less than a second, which is pretty incredible,” says Christian Weedbrook, CEO of Xanadu, the company that built Borealis.

Weedbrook said this is only the third time a quantum computer has tackled something beyond the reach of a regular computer, a scenario called quantum advantage. The first time was by Google in 2019, the second by a team of Chinese researchers in 2020. Xanadu’s achievement was published earlier this summer in Nature magazine.

Christian Weedbrook is CEO of the Canadian quantum computing start-up, Xanadu. (Radio-Canada News)

For years, quantum computers have mainly been the focus of academics and governments. Now experts say we could be close to a turning point where technology is closer to commercialization.

“This is a very nice step that shows the technology is mature…and could be a candidate for wider adoption of quantum computers,” said Anne Broadbent, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, where she does research on quantum computing.

Weedbrook said the potential of quantum computers is nearly limitless, opening the door to “solving important business problems in areas ranging from finance to drug discovery and materials design.”

Exponential possibilities

The concepts used in quantum computing can seem mind-blowing, and they are very powerful. Ordinary computers encode information using zeros and ones, known as binary digits or bits for short. Using quantum physics, these supercomputers can use zeros, ones, or any value in between, in something known as quantum digits – or quibits. This allows them to perform calculations much faster on more complex problems.

But the big difference between the two types of computers is how they actually approach a problem. If an ordinary computer were trying to traverse a maze, it would consider each possible route one by one. A quantum computer would consider all roads at once.

“Just add one [quibit] doubles the computational capacity of your system,” says Stephanie Simmons, associate professor of physics at Simon Fraser University and founder of Photonic, a Vancouver-based quantum startup. which we hope to take advantage of. »

Stephanie Simmons is an associate professor of physics and founder of Photonic. She sees commercialization as the next step for quantum computers. (Radio-Canada News)

In July, Simmons and his team also published an innovation in Nature: a silicon chip containing 150,000 quibits. Since silicon is already so widely used in technology, Simmons says it will be easier to produce these more robust chips on a larger scale.

“What we’re seeing next is commercialization of the quantum, and so we’re going to start to see little glimmers and then all of a sudden it’s going to change everything we do.”

The overall picture

The race is on to build a universal quantum computer capable of solving a wide range of problems. Startups in the sector are booming, with 23 quantum companies based in Canada, according to McKinsey & Co., a global management consultant. The United States is the only more advanced country, with 59 quantum-related startups.

Weedbrook said growth in this field provides an opportunity to attract scientific talent to the country.

“Xanadu is doing… kind of a brain gain,” she said. “We have more than half of the people who started it are actually from overseas.”

WATCH | Commercialization the next step for quantum computers:

What the future holds for quantum computing

Canadians at the forefront of the quantum computing industry describe what the future holds.

American heavyweights like IBM, Google and Microsoft are pushing hard, as are Amazon and Honeywell. And governments are increasingly making quantum computing a priority. The United States has just signed the CHIPS and Science Act, which provides about 280 billion US dollars for quantum, computer science and artificial intelligence research and development. Meanwhile, China and the EU are also investing heavily in this technology.

“We envision a scenario where international competition is very strong,” said Broadbent, the Ottawa professor. “Canada has traditionally been ahead in many areas…we want to continue that effort.”

Canada committed $360 million in the 2021 federal budget to develop a national quantum strategy. Simmons said she hopes that with continued investment “we could really make a big difference in terms of keeping jobs here, keeping talent here, and actually benefiting from this economic windfall.”

Become practical

While quantum computers are still in their infancy, experts are already pointing to them as having the potential to solve complex problems like climate change and cybersecurity. The technology is also beginning to creep into business plans, with Goldman Sachs using quantum computers to improve calculations in option financing and Volkswagen seeking to use them to optimize its manufacturing.

Professor Daniel Gottesman, a theoretical computer scientist at the University of Maryland, acknowledges that there is still a lot of hype in the industry.

“There’s a lot of hope for the future of quantum computing, but there’s also uncertainty…progress could slow,” he said.

A Vancouver team led by Simmons has created a quantum chip using silicon that can hold 150,000 quibits. (Radio-Canada News)

Nevertheless, he predicts that quantum computers will live up to expectations; it’s just a matter of when. “It will be a while before we get some that are big enough to do useful things for anything – and even longer before we get some that are useful for many things.”

The technology faces hurdles, including cost and scale of production, but Simmons expects quantum computing to make a big difference.

“Even if you don’t use quantum computers in your office, you’re still going to experience the effects. Because many companies are going to be able to use this exponential increase in computing power to change what they can provide us with. as consumers.”

Sherry J. Basler