Dec 9, 2020 - Technology

Quantum computing's growing advantage

Illustration of a loading screen on a computer with an electron breaking through the side of the screen
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the theoretical limits of classical computing come into sight, quantum computing is taking its first steps from the lab to the real world.

Why it matters: The modern world has been built on the back of extraordinary advances in computing power, but as that progress slows, quantum computers could take up the baton, bringing computing into a new era — and providing massive rewards to the companies and countries that lead the way.

Driving the news: In a paper published in Science last week, a team of researchers in China harnessed the mysterious workings of quantum mechanics to perform computations in minutes that would have taken billions of years using conventional machines.

  • The research — which used photonic quantum computers, a different approach than many others in the field represents what the team claims is the first definitive demonstration of "quantum advantage," solving a problem that would have been essentially impossible with classical computers.
  • "This is a wonderful demonstration of what you can do with this technology," says Christian Weedbrook, CEO of the quantum-computing startup Xanadu, which is working on building machines with a similar photonics-based foundation.

The catch: Last year a team from Google built a quantum computer that they claimed achieved "quantum supremacy," performing computations in minutes that would have taken the most powerful supercomputers 10,000 years.

  • Unlike the Chinese team, Google's quantum computer was programmable, and as Weedbrook points out any computer should "inherently have programmability implied. That would be a criticism of the [team in China's] paper."
  • But Google's claims have been contested by others in the quantum computing field, who argued that with a better algorithm, a classical supercomputer could have performed the computations faster than the company's quantum computer.

Be smart: This back-and-forth — and the fact that the field can't agree on whether to call these achievements "quantum advantage" or "quantum supremacy" — underscores the fact that quantum computing is still a nascent technology.

  • According to Bob Sorenson, an analyst at Hyperion Research, the global quantum computing market was worth about $250 million in 2019 — or less than what Alphabet made in ad revenue in a single day last year — though it is projected to rapidly grow in the years to come.

Yes, but: There are growing signs the progress made in the lab on quantum computing is beginning to transfer into meaningful commercial products, especially in cloud computing.

  • Earlier this week Xanadu announced a partnership with AWS that will bring its open-source quantum software library PennyLane to the cloud computing giant, a sign of what Weedbrook calls "validation of the commercial applications for quantum."
  • Last week IBM reached a new quantum volume — one of the most widely accepted general measures of quantum computing performance — on one of its systems.
  • On Wednesday Cambridge Quantum Computing in the U.K. announced a $45 million financing round, the largest for any quantum software company this year.

What they're saying: "We know this stuff is going to happen in five to seven years, and now is the time to get these [quantum] platforms built and get ready for them," former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told my Axios colleague Kia Kokalitcheva at the Q2B20 conference this week. "It's going to be incredible when it happens."

Details: The true power of quantum computing is in its superior ability to optimize and simulate some of the toughest problems in logistics and material sciences.

  • While classical computers are deterministic and operate serially — testing one possibility after another — quantum computers "operate probabilistically and simultaneously," noted BCG principal Matt Langione at Q2B20.
  • Because physics is at its heart driven by quantum mechanics, quantum computers should be far better at accurately simulating reality. "If you want to simulate the climate, fully error-corrected quantum computers could be wonderful," Michael Marthaler, the CEO of HQS Quantum Simulations, told me during a panel at Q2B20.

The intrigue: Quantum computing could be coming into its own at the very moment when Moore's Law — the long-running prediction that computer chips will steadily get more powerful — "will finally begin to degrade," as Schmidt said.

What to watch: Commercial quantum computing is chiefly taking place on the cloud, in part because it's easier to build a few quantum computers that are accessible via the internet, rather than selling many separately, notes Weedbrook.

  • Major cloud platforms like AWS and Microsoft Azure are striking more deals with quantum computing players.

The bottom line: As both the hardware and the software improves, quantum will have the advantage in computing.

  • Or the supremacy.
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