Quantum computing has long been promised but has yet to genuinely deliver as a reality. Could the future finally be just around the corner?
In the last few months, IBM, Intel, and other vendors have all announced developments in the world of quantum computing. Intel unveiled its Tunnel Falls 12-qubit silicon-based chip, for example, while IBM announced plans to launch its first European quantum data center and cloud region – another step forward for the quantum cloud.
Industry observers would be forgiven for feeling a distinct sense of deja vu regarding the announcements. Over the last decade or so, the technology has fallen victim to the IT hype cycle in the same way as artificial intelligence appears to have today.
However, while the noise of artificial intelligence (AI) has drowned out much of the quantum discourse in the public arena, engineers and scientists appear closer than ever to making the technology do something useful.
Step back from dire warnings quantum technology will render many encryption standards redundant – as well as the ‘steal now, crack later’ threat – and one can detect some definite progress on the technology that appears perpetually “just a few years away”.
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Raymond Simmonds, a physicist at the National Institute of Science and Technology, says he’shopeful that useful results might show up within the next few years.
However, he also points out a more significant milestone was the point at which a quantum computer could perform a calculation simply not possible with regular classical computers. “That’s probably still ten years away,” he tells ITPro.
And, of course, that estimate is for a quantum computer designed for a specific task. Simmonds estimates a universal quantum computer – one that could be reprogrammed in a similar way to classical computers – was still 20 years away.
The issue is one of expectation. It’s easy to forget how long ago the first mechanical switches were implemented, before being shrunk to vacuum tubes, then transistors, and finally to ever more densely packed microchips.
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“I think the difference with quantum computers is the bit itself,” explains Simmonds, The mechanical switch was the first ‘bit’, and it absolutely worked. Our bits don’t completely work.”
Simmonds notes challenges around maintaining quantum coherence and error correction before declaring himself more optimistic than others in the field, who believe a practical universal quantum computer is impossible.
IBM turns down the quantum noise
Nature published results from an IBM team in June 2023 showing quantum computing outperforming classical computers. The research attempted to simulate the dynamics of spins in a material model and accurately predict properties such as its magnetization.
One issue with quantum computing is how noisy things tend to be, making results less accurate than those obtained from a classical computer. However, the researchers were able to mitigate the errors and demonstrate IBM’s Quantum ‘Eagle’ quantum processor outperforming classical simulations.
“We are now entering a new era of utility for quantum computing," said Darío Gil, Senior Vice President and Director of IBM Research.
Intel edges closer to commercialization
Chip giant Intel also took a step forward with Tunnel Falls, a 12-qubit silicon chip, which will be made available to the quantum research community.
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AI is nothing compared to the oncoming quantum storm
Jim Clarke, director of Quantum Hardware at Intel, said the plan was “to build a full-stack commercial quantum computing system.”
By making the technology available to the research community, Intel hopes to improve qubit performance and scalability. The follow-up to Tunnel Falls, already in development, is expected to be released in 2024.
However, as Clarke observes: “There are still fundamental questions and challenges that must be solved along the path to a fault-tolerant quantum computer.”
Therein lies the rub. While vendors continue to warn of the coming quantum storm – Dell’s CTO issued a stark warning during Dell Technologies World 2023 – its actual arrival always seems to be five years or so into the future.
Businesses need to prime for a quantum future
At the other end of the spectrum is Chirag Dekate of Gartner, vice president of research covering quantum, AI, and supercomputing.
Dekate notes the perception that quantum always appears to be five years away, but struck an optimistic tone with the roadmaps being produced by companies such as IBM and Google.
The pace of innovation in the quantum field is, according to Dekate, outpacing that of the last decade. He goes further to predict the next ten years of quantum development would outpace the previous century of innovation.
“I'm secretly hoping that the time window for practical exploitation is closer to three to five years, as opposed to ten years,” he ssays.
Regardless of the when quantum computing becomes a practical option for businesses, Dekate says enterprises must begin preparing for an “inevitable” quantum future.
Although Dekate is optimistic technological hurdles can be overcome, he describes the industry as a ‘Wild West’, given the lack of standardization between varying quantum computing vendors. Standardizaing software layers, according to Dekate, will becrucial to creating a stable software ecosystem.
Despite technological challenges, such as error correction, Dekate sees a bright future for quantum computing in the near term.
Where it’s taken classical computing seven decades to reach today’s standards, he says, in terms of quantum computing, this is going to happen over the next seven years”.
“Like we say that every enterprise today is a technology company, every enterprise in the future will be a quantum entity.”
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Richard Speed is an expert in databases, DevOps and IT regulations and governance. He was previously a Staff Writer for ITPro, CloudPro and ChannelPro, before going freelance. He first joined Future in 2023 having worked as a reporter for The Register. He has also attended numerous domestic and international events, including Microsoft's Build and Ignite conferences and both US and EU KubeCons.
Prior to joining The Register, he spent a number of years working in IT in the pharmaceutical and financial sectors.