Is quantum now a reality? Should I start my journey now?

20 July 2022

Is quantum now a reality? Should I start my journey now?

by Max Foreman

Over the Summer break of 2021-2022, I had the privilege of working as an intern at IBM in Brisbane, and the following article is inspired by the learning I have undertaken throughout this experience.

Is quantum now a reality?

As an aspiring research physicist what truly grabbed my attention lately is the fact that quantum computers have been brought out of the lab and are now freely accessible over the cloud through the IBM Quantum Lab. With the open-source quantum computing software development framework Qiskit, users can run code on IBM’s real quantum systems. This accessibility is not only exciting for budding physicists but is an essential step to scaling the quantum movement and progressing away from the perception that quantum computing is esoteric and far removed from societal applications.

In the past, condensed matter physicists have often relied on costly hardware and large collaborations to permit their experimentation. Now users of IBM’s cloud-based quantum processors have made ground-breaking advances in condensed matter physics with little more than their laptop and a user account with IBM Quantum. Of particular notoriety, in May of 2021, two researchers at the University of Melbourne reported evidence for the much-heralded ‘time crystal’ using ibmq_manhattan’s and ibmq_brooklyn’s 65-qubit processors over the cloud (see here).

The arms of quantum computing applications reach even further. It is impossible for Summit – the world’s most powerful supercomputer – to model a caffeine molecule with complete fidelity. To represent a single state of the molecule at a given instant requires ~10^48 conventional computer bits. A quantum computer with 160 qubits could perform this same simulation. Yet chemistry is just one domain where quantum computing is anticipated to surpass the capabilities of current computing architectures. Vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil, Vijay Swarup, sees further quantum applications in generating environmental predictions, optimizing energy grids, and making breakthroughs in carbon-capture technologies – for each of these applications require computations that are too laborious for our current computers. 

The common denominator I take from each of these capabilities is that quantum computing skills are becoming broadly applicable to industry. Now, if I intend to study and specialise in quantum computing, it could imply that I wish to lean into modelling protein folding, or leverage those skills to simulate our climate, or to optimise transportation networks, or to ensure computers can understand all dialects, languages, and accents – above the traditional physics research applications. In this way, I believe quantum computing skills are spiking in value and versatility to increasingly diverse industries. And most excitingly, I feel confident that if I study quantum computing I will be equipped to impart meaningful change through many domains.

So, should you begin your quantum journey?

Amidst all this brilliant news of how quantum computing is taking flight today, it is important to remain realistic about its progression. In Matthias Steffen’s words, an IBM Fellow and Chief Quantum Scientist at IBM Quantum: “Quantum computers today are too small and still have too many errors to solve large-scale, business relevant problems” (see here). Not only do we need more qubits, but we need better qubits, a better understanding of quantum error mitigation and further experimentation to see businesses become quantum computing beneficiaries.

Despite this, I have no doubt that quantum computers are maturing to the tasks ahead. Roadmaps are established to bridge from the noisy and small-scale devices of current to the 1,000,000+ qubit devices of the future. Particularly, IBM Quantum is committed to – and has been delivering on – at least doubling the quantum volume (a holistic measure of quality that includes the qubit count, error rates and ‘wiring’ of the system) of their systems each year.

The reality is that quantum computing ecosystems, such as the IBM Quantum Network, are already taking shape. And the very essence of IBM’s quantum ecosystem is for forward thinking companies, academic institutions, and national research labs to accelerate and scale quantum computing to move closer to solving today's unsolvable business and scientific problems.

Businesses must begin preparing now to lead in this rapidly approaching quantum computing age and to avoid the risk of being left behind. Scarce quantum talent must be chased down, internal skills must be developed in exploratory projects and training, and planning must be undertaken for integration with future workflows. In analogy – and with preparation – businesses will be standing afoot the take-off of the internet equipped to digitalise. Actionable preparations to improve quantum literacy and readiness needn’t be great strides, begin by:

•    Identifying a quantum champion to attend conferences and workshops

•    Evaluating where quantum computing benefits or disruptions may arise in your business areas

•    Developing the right skills – those who are familiar with problem solving approaches and advanced analytics should be at the top of your list

•    Experimenting with real quantum computers now – tutorials, simulators and program unique algorithms exist on free quantum processors available over the cloud. Take time to also consider which problems you wish to solve in the forthcoming quantum era.