Quantum computing is inciting a literal quantum leap when it comes to power and speed. Tech giants, venture firms, universities and governments have invested billions in it. But why? Find out! Set a timer for 200 seconds (roughly 3.3 minutes).

It took Sycamore, a quantum computer developed by Google’s AI Quantum team based in Northern California, that long to finish a computation the team said would have taken an uber supercomputer 10,000 years to sort out. The event was noted in a report authored by 77 Google reps which ran in the October 2019 edition of the journal “Nature.”

Does Quantum Computing Reign Supreme?

What Sycamore achieved was a quantum supremacy breakthrough—a huge jump in computing with far-reaching implications. The problem it solved was a complex calculation of no practical use, but its power indicated a real shift. Exploration into QC has revealed potential uses in fields like:

  • AI
  • Finance
  • Aerospace
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Communications

Researchers at IBM Corp., a leader in high-performance computing (HPC), challenged the AI Quantum team’s claim in a blog post—stating it would take a supercomputer with the right setup 2.5 days to solve the problem. Meanwhile, Director of Intel Labs Rich Uhlig, PhD, congratulated Google but first stated “the field is still at mile one of what will be a marathon toward quantum computing’s commercialization.”

Some analysts agreed. One was Matthew Brisse for Gartner Inc., a firm which keeps tabs on data-center and cloud infrastructure developments. Quoted in the “Wall Street Journal,” Brisse said Sycamore’s success “is proof we are making forward progress (but) from the end-user standpoint it’s a nonevent.”

All the same, among other tech giants, IBM and Intel have bet big on QC research—as have venture capitalists. In the past five years, revealed independent findings by “Nature,” governments and tech firms have all ramped up related spending.

Quantum Computing Explained: Bits vs. Qubits

Getting the science behind QC has long required an imagination. Traditional computers store data in “bits” at one of two states: 1 (on) or 0 (off). In nature, though, things are never simply on or off. Some states are uncertain. This quandary led to a new field of science, quantum physics, and to the theory of quantum mechanics.

Scientists then applied this thinking to computing. Unlike traditional computers, quantum computers store data in “quantum bits” (qubits) which can be: on, off or both. The both state is called superposition—which allows for uncertainty or conditions unknown.

A common analogy scientist have used to explain QC and superposition is the solving of a maze. If a traditional computer were to navigate a maze, it would explore every corridor one-by-one and turn back at every dead end. In superposition, a quantum computer can explore all paths at once.

As for power, two regular bits combined allow for four states: 00, 01, 10 or 11. Because of superposition, a qubit is allowed all four at once. As qubits are added, a quantum computer’s power grows exponentially.

The Future of Quantum Computing

Everyone with an interest has poured money into QC research, exploring new approaches to programming and hoping to identify new applications for it. In the race to find breakthroughs are Google parent company Alphabet Inc., IBM, Intel, Microsoft and HP. And those are just some major U.S. players. Other recent QC developments:

  • Aerospace. Reporting for “The Telegraph” in December 2015, Alan Tovey noted that Airbus had just launched a QC unit in South Wales, bringing Silicon Valley-style tech to the region. The goal? Define modeling and simulation algorithms related to satellite image analysis, materials manufacture and more.
  • Banking & Finance. Big banks (i.e., Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase) have also studied QC. In late 2019, Finadium noted that Wells Fargo and IBM had struck a multi-year deal “focused on research and learning … intended to boost the bank’s” AI and QC capabilities. Think chatbots, financial analytics, etc.
  • Communications. In 2017, AT&T said its Foundary center in Palo Alto had joined with Caltech to form the Alliance for Quantum Technologies. The AQT set its sights on further research and development into “capacity and security in communications.” The two were already engaged in quantum communications and R&D efforts together.

 As for all-purpose use, IBM has revived the same strategy it used to pioneer HPC: a quick jump to commercialization.

IBM spent decades developing supercomputers like Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (a federally-funded R&D facility in Tennessee) and Sierra at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (a federal research facility in California). In November 2019, both were once again dubbed the world’s fastest by TOP500.

Simultaneously, IBM jumped to apply innovations with commercial QC applications across industries by sizing up its HPC markets for those which also need to process gigantic amounts of data: aircraft design, pharmaceutical research, mining, etc.

Yes, QC has its naysayers. But will they be proven wrong—on a quantum level?


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Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:

Bajpai, Prableen. “Quantum Computing: How to Invest in It—and Which Companies Are Leading the Way?” (Feb. 11, 2020). Nasdaq.com. https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/quantum-computing%3A-how-to-invest-in-it-and-which-companies-are-leading-the-way-2020-02-11

Busvine, Douglas and Paresh Dave. “Google Unveils Quantum Computer Breakthrough; Critics Say Wait a Qubit” (Oct. 23, 2019). Reuters.com. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-alphabet-quantum/google-unveils-quantum-computer-breakthrough-critics-say-wait-a-qubit-idUSKBN1X21QW

Gibney, Elizabeth. “Quantum Gold Rush: The Private Funding Pouring into Quantum Start-ups” (Oct. 2, 2019). Nature.com. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02935-4

TOP500. “November 2019” (54th edition: TOP500 List). TOP500.org. https://www.top500.org/lists/2019/11/

Uhlig, Rich. “The Race to Commercially-Viable Quantum Computing Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint” (Oct. 23, 2019). Intel.com. https://newsroom.intel.com/editorials/race-commercially-viable-quantum-computing-marathon-not-sprint/#gs.05fvz8