American multinational IBM (International Business Corporation) has announced plans to build the first universal quantum computer, with the intention of selling them commercially. It is not known when exactly these computers will be available, but it is estimated to be within the next few years. Initial computers will be accessed via the cloud and the first applications would be for drug and materials discovery, financial services and supply chain. The company has not yet disclosed what these computers will cost.
Quantum computers will reportedly give us the possibility of exploring the world we don’t have data for. The computers use the way particles interact at a subatomic level to make calculations, while conventional computers make use of electronic gates, switches and binary code. Unlike conventional silicon chip-based computers, which render data in one of two states (1 or 0), quantum computers allow data to exist in both states simultaneously, giving quantum computers the ability to hold exponentially more information.
Quantum computers operate on quantum bits, also referred to as ‘qubits’. The more qubits, the more computing power the quantum computer is capable of. According to IBM, a level of 50 qubits would have to be reached for the computer to surpass the fastest supercomputer that exists today, the Sunway TaihuLight that is currently operating in China. So far, IBM has produced a prototype 17-qubit processor.
A new phase of matter has recently been discovered that may prove to be a fundamental discovery in physics with possible applications in clocks and quantum computers, according to American theoretical and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek. These time crystals were first hypothesized by Wilczek five years ago.
Time crystals are different from ordinary crystals like salt and sugar because they not only have a fixed order in space but also a repeated order in time, which means that the atoms in time crystals prefer different states at different intervals in time.
According to Wilczek, the only relatively concrete use at the moment is that they can eventually serve as useful clocks for quantum computers.
Russia, the US, Europe and China
Among other countries, Russia is making efforts to create a quantum computer. Late last year, two leading Russian quantum computing research institutes, the Russian Quantum Center and the MISiS National University of Science & Technology, also announced a joint project known as Quantum Center.
Also last year, Russian corporation Rosatom, the Foundation for Advanced Studies and the Ministry of Education and Science signed onto a joint three-year project on the development of a quantum computer.
In a recent interview, Dr. Chad Rigetti, a former member of the IBM’s quantum-computing research group and now the CEO of his own company, Rigetti Computing, stated that “computing superiority is fundamental to long-term economic superiority, safety and security.” According to Rigetti, the US must have a strategy that views quantum computing as a way to regain American superiority in high-performance computing.
But according to military observer and RIA Novostu contributor Ilya Plekhanov, “it is believed that investments into the development of quantum computers by companies such a Microsoft, Intel, IBM, D-Wave and Google make the US the leader in this field. But such confidence may be deceiving.”
Plekhanov’s notion can be further illustrated by an admission from the White House last year that Washington’s superiority in computer technology was “under siege” and that more investment was needed specifically in the area of quantum technologies.
Plekhanov stated that science and education figures are indicative. Currently, US educational institutions produce just over half a million graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In China, that figure is already 4.7 million and growing.
He added that, “China is already launching unhackable satellites with quantum-based communication systems, building quantum radars, hundreds of kilometers’ worth of quantum communication lines and creating the world’s fastest supercomputers.”
Even Europe is currently trying to create its own quantum computer over the next ten years and has invested the equivalent of around a billion dollars into this program.
However, US state-based spending on quantum developments is currently less than $200 million. Plekhanov notes that the US is “pinning all their hopes on the success of private corporations”, while China is focusing on long-term investments in a narrow range of areas, with projects outlined in detail years in advance. Plekhanov states that ultimately, “if China manages to become the leader of the ‘quantum-revolution’ then the geopolitical and military picture in the world will change dramatically.”
China may in fact already be well on its way to doing exactly that, as Chinese computer scientists have developed a prototype of a quantum computer that uses multiple photons, as opposed to the aforementioned IBM prototype which involves single-photon sourcing. The Chinese version is said to be 24,000 times faster than its IBM counterpart. Chinese scientists say that they expect to build a quantum computer as powerful as a common laptop by the end of this year and as powerful as the world’s most powerful supercomputer by 2020.
Interestingly, Plekhanov also explained that, “the news is of great importance for the military sphere, where the possible use of quantum computers is being discussed with greater and greater frequency. All leading countries are aiming to be the first to create such machines.”
According to Plekhanov, the first and most obvious military application for a modern, fully functional quantum computer is the capability to engage in near-instantaneous hacking into encrypted military servers and those controlling the national infrastructure systems of the enemy. He adds that in case of a military conflict, having this capability would give one side a huge advantage and it will also “significantly improve the work of unmanned and autonomous vehicles, to which the conduct of military operations will be entrusted in the foreseeable future.” He also said that “military robots using this technology will be able to make decisions faster, work more accurately, engage multiple targets, ‘see’ the battlefield better and calculate forward to greater depth than enemy robots. And this means that they would win battles.”
He goes on to explain that quantum computers will also be used to design new weapons, new materials and even new strategies for warfare, as well as battlefield projections.
What we should always be mindful of is that China and Russia are technologically always many iterations ahead of what they would like the world to believe. Do not be surprised if they already have quantum computers which are faster than what is believed to currently be the world’s fastest supercomputer, mentioned earlier on in this article. The US and Europe might think the race is on but it is likely someone has already passed the finishing line.