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Is quantum computing technology around the corner?

by Sean Bryson

Quantum computing technology could expedite information exchange and communication. But only a few vendors are building out quantum technologies today. 

Quantum computing technologies can drive major innovations in society and help address some of the most complex challenges we have today. And while quantum technologies may invoke memories of recent Marvel movies, this article isn’t about Dr. Strange or Ant Man.

Quantum computing technology is founded on the essential elements of quantum mechanics – the science and principles of atomic waves and behaviors. Quantum networking extends the principles of quantum computing by speeding data transfer and communication. Before we dive into quantum networking and the quantum Internet, let’s start with some basics on quantum computing and whyit represents a departure.

What is quantum computing technology?

Classical computing essentially uses electricity to flip a switch between the on and off positions. This is represented using binary values of 1 (on) or 0 (off). The switch can be in only one position at a time: on or off. The value of this switch is then a single bit. If a second switch were added, there would be a total of four combinations of data that could be produced between the two switches – on/on, on/off, off/on, off/off.

A quantum computer gains enormous processing power through its ability to operate in multiple states and to simultaneously perform tasks using all possible permutations.

Consider a coin. In traditional computing, the coin is in either one of two positions: heads or tails. What is the state of the coin if it spins on a table? It moves rapidly between both positions. This rapid movement is essentially how quantum computing operates. The state of this electron is then represented with a unit of measure called a quantum bit or a qubit.

In quantum computing, the measurement and storage of data is performed using the electrons of an atom. Measurements are taken with the polarization of the electron, and the position with related energy. While this measurement provides the same on (spin-up position) and off (spin-down position) as in a classical computer, the key difference is the concept of superposition. Superposition means the electron could be in both the on and off states at the same time.

The benefits of quantum computing technologies

Further, manipulating the state of an electron requires the movements to be slowed; this can be done only by using super-cooling techniques. Quantum computers are generally slower than classical computers, and the cooling requirements make quantum computers prohibitively expensive for most organizations.

So, given complexity and cost, how then, is quantum computing technology valuable? Classical computers struggle to solve problems that are data- and computing-intensive. Modeling the behavior of chemical enzymes, for example, generally exceeds a classical computer’s capabilities.

Qubits—the basic unit of measure of information in quantum computing—provide 2X scale of data compared to classical computing bits. The exponential increase in data capacity and the state of data provide the foundation to begin to tackle the most complex problems.

Quantum entanglement

Another important element to quantum computing technology is quantum entanglement, whereby two electrons can be aligned in their state even if the electrons are separated by a large distance.

Essentially this means the state of two different qubits —the basic unit of measure of information in quantum computing—can become aligned (entangled) with both qubits reporting the exact same state and information even if those qubits are not communicating or connected to one another. Quantum entanglement allows two different quantum computing machines to provide the same output for entangled qubits, which can speed processing while dramatically enhancing the security of the communications between the systems.

Part of the reason quantum entanglement increases security is that the entanglement process is limited to just two qubits that are in the same state. If the data in the entangled qubits is accessed, the data would change, resulting in a change in the entanglement. When the quantum computers and networks examined the qubits, the lack of entanglement becomes obvious, because the fundamental qubit data has been changed and the foreign qubit can’t access the data in the entangled qubits.

What is quantum networking and the quantum Internet ?

Quantum networking links quantum computers together. The result brings improvements in speed and security to interconnecting computational systems. However, the challenges are significant. There is a high degree of complexity given how the entities are connected and how data is moved.

Just like classical computing and the classical Internet, connecting quantum devices facilitates knowledge sharing, creating business solutions and accessing data.

Connecting quantum devices presents some challenges. First, communication between devices and qubits is generally handled by transmitting data through photons. However, as the state of a qubit can fluctuate, the transmission of a photon cannot be repeated if the photon is lost. The second challenge is the use of quantum entanglement across a network connection. When quantum entanglement is used, latency between devices can be virtually eliminated and, as the state is constantly changing, the connection is more secure and immune to man-in-the-middle types of network attacks.

The use of photons for transmissions and quantum entanglement requires a classical network to undergo changes and modification and many of these technologies are continuously changing. Further, the current technology is limited in the distance data can travel. Most quantum networks support distances of 1 meter or less. Quantum network devices are being developed now to repeat photon signals and expand the distance between quantum computers.

Engineers have recently made a breakthrough in resolving some of the transmission issues in the network and in qubit data storage using synthetic diamonds, the color and consistency of which can be controlled. Synthetic diamonds provide the specific light transmission controls needed to allow the photons to pass between points without having the photon incur change. Further, the research indicates options may be available to convert the quantum network photon wavelength into a wavelength that is supported on modern fiber optic cables. This would allow quantum networking to be built against existing infrastructure investments.

Once the challenges with distance, repeaters and photon wavelengths are resolved, quantum networks will begin to establish the quantum Internet.

Quantum computing technology and the cloud

The costs of the equipment and the highly specialized skills required to support these systems means that few organizations will operate their own quantum computers or quantum networks anytime soon. Still, these systems will be available through major cloud providers, which already offer some of these specialized systems in their cloud environments.

These providers will operate the specialized network equipment bridging the quantum network with the classical network, thereby allowing organizations to tap into the compute power. Early adopters of these technologies include research and medical teams. These systems generally have 16 qubits or less of capacity, which limits the extent of problems that can be solved. Recent advancements in qubit technology have demonstrated that 50-qubit systems are possible and could become part of the major cloud vendors' platforms.

Solving business problems with quantum computing technology and networks

Quantum computing and quantum networks will have profound impact on organizations' creative powers. Quantum computing will unlock major advances in science and engineering scenarios. While these quantum technology systems will have more limited access in the near future, organizations can get started now. Quantum programming languages such as Q# exist, and quantum computing systems are available from various technology providers in their respective cloud environments. And quantum computers are rapidly expanding the number of qubits supported, which makes the machines more powerful.

Organizations should begin to consider where having exponentially more data would help address problems and deliver answers. Enterprises should start to look at how the problem might be solved with quantum computing and whether options for using cloud providers and the quantum Internet might spur ongoing business innovation.

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Sean Bryson

Sean Bryson is a high-tech executive and consultant focused on innovative technologies.