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Summer interns working on an IBM quantum computer.
Summer interns working on an IBM quantum computer.

Intel, Google take quantum leaps, but the wait isn’t over

  • Though research on quantum computing began in the 1980s, we saw some important developments this past year
  • To realize the dream of quantum computing as a consumer product, there’s a lot that has to be done

New Delhi: Your smartphone, a pocket computer, is infinitely faster than the laptop you used to carry 10 years ago. On the other hand, Pratyush, an Indian supercomputer that predicts the weather is infinitely more powerful than your phone.

But smartphones and supercomputers share the same foundation. In future, this foundation of computing is going to change through quantum computing. Instead of the classic bits where 0 and 1 exist in separate states, quantum computers use quantum bits or qubits, which can process 1 and 0 simultaneously, leading to significantly faster processing. Though research on quantum computing began in the 1980s, we saw some important developments this past year.

In October 2019, Google announced it has achieved Quantum Supremacy, meaning it was able to demonstrate that a Quantum Computer could solve a problem our current computers couldn’t.

Scientists at Google used a quantum computer running on a fully programmable Sycamore chip consisting of 54 qubits to carry out an experimental computation. The computer took merely 200 seconds to do the calculation, which Google estimates, would have taken the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years.

IBM was quick to raise doubts over Google’s claim, arguing that if an ideal simulation is carried out, a classical supercomputer can do the same calculation in 2.5 days or less.

Even if that’s true, the fact remains that quantum computers are infinitely faster than supercomputers.

Suryachandra Rao, chief scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said the recent developments are significant, however, to realize the dream of quantum computing as a consumer product, a lot needs to be done. “Google used a small quantum processor to solve the problem they have designed to test this processor. Similarly, all other attempts also showcase their test cases. For solving practical problems like weather forecasting, online security or financial modelling, we need hundreds, if not thousands, of qubits, as per an Intel study," said Rao.

In addition to what Google has accomplished, Microsoft and IBM also contributed significantly by open-sourcing their quantum development kits and programming tools. This will make further development and research easier by allowing the industry, academic institutions and developers to play with the technology and come up with new ideas. IBM also unveiled the Q System One prototype, a 20 qubit quantum computer designed for commercial use, January 2019.

Google is also planning to open-source the quantum simulations used to achieve Quantum Supremacy to allow outside researchers to examine and validate its data and techniques.

Another milestone in quantum computing is Microsoft’s Azure quantum. It will provide Microsoft’s customers access to three quantum computers developed by Honeywell in collaboration with IonQ. While all these will make the technology more accessible for further development, what will make it commercially viable and scalable, according to Intel, is its new chip, codenamed HorseRidge. The chip is designed to replace bulky instruments and wiring currently used in quantum computers.

Where Google claimed Quantum Supremacy, Intel was talking about Quantum Practicality, which is a benchmark against which the Quantum community can determine whether a commercial quantum computer is actually possible.

Riding on these key developments, quantum computing created a lot of buzz in 2019. They have also allowed the industry to get a clearer picture of when the technology and its ecosystem would be ready for commercial deployment and solving real world problems.

Jaspreet Bindra, writer and digital transformation expert, predicts that applications being written for quantum computing by external software developers would be ready in the next four to five years, while the utilization of the technology for space research, asteroid mapping, weather and more will happen in the next 5 to 10 years.

For those wondering when quantum computers would be available to the general public, there is no clear time frame, as similar to supercomputers, the technology is meant to carry out large-scale calculations. Its benefits will eventually trickle down to the public in the form of faster customer experience, more accurate financial or weather predictions and better governance, if and when the organization and governments deploy quantum computers.

As of now, it is hard to say if it will ever get miniaturised enough to drive a smartphone or PC. Bindra adds, “Today, I can’t say when and how it will happen. But then, no one had thought that PC will be in everyone’s hands until the transistor revolution happened."

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