2018 – Year of the Quantum Computer?

Intel throws down the quantum gauntlet.

Computers could be about to enter a brand new era. Transistor-based computing has been enjoying the limelight for the past few decades, while its misunderstood, temperamental sibling, quantum computing, has been biding its time in the wings. But with companies recently revealing their advancing efforts, 2018 could be the year the technology makes its rave debut.

The point at which quantum computers are able to perform certain tasks faster than classical computers — dubbed “quantum supremacy” — has been a milestone goal in the field for a long time, and it’s now seemingly just on the horizon. Several major players in the technology world, keen to avoid missing a trick, have been investing in quantum computers for years, and some of them say they are close to the supremacy moment. Google declared last year it is on the precipice, while Intel revealed an advanced prototype in January of this year, and Microsoft, IBM and others aren’t far behind.

One of the ways a company could prove they’ve crossed the line is to run a particular numerical task on their quantum computer, something like finding the position of items in a random list, or factoring extremely large numbers. These are tasks classical computers can do, too, but only with a lot of brute processing force, limited as they are on a physical level. But the strangeness of quantum physics allows a quantum computer to take a different approach. Instead of stumbling upon the answer by checking one by one, the quantum approach works on probabilities, building up a likelihood that a certain result is the correct one – and, crucially, in a much shorter time.

This ability comes from the strange behaviour found at the very core of the quantum world, something still not fully understood; quantum physics is well known for its reluctance to be well known. While a classical bit – the tiniest component of a computer system – can exist in binary form as either a 1 or a 0, a quantum bit, or qubit, can represent a complex combination of both states simultaneously. It’s due to this counter-intuitive behaviour that the familiar rules of computing don’t apply.

But this doesn’t mean we should expect quantum smartphones to hit the shelves any time soon. Quantum supremacy will no doubt be a threshold moment, but there’s a few catches – and they’re pretty big ones. For one, these kinds of supremacy tests sit squarely within the wheelhouse of quantum machines. Other tasks that users have become accustomed to a computer performing, like internet browsing and gaming, require a different processing approach that is currently, and potentially always will be, beyond the reach of any quantum computer.

And more fundamentally, current quantum computers just aren’t very good. They’re noisy (in the sense of garbled information exchanges between qubits), they’re fragile (easily falling out of quantum arrangements), and they often make mistakes in calculations. It’s partly these stumbling blocks that have slowed progress on the road to a quantum computing breakthrough, and until they’re cleared up, the machines are likely to stay resolutely inside labs.

That said, the progress of Intel and others working on quantum technology is obviously advancing, and it could have some big ramifications in the future – for all of us. A lot of modern cryptography, the sort used to protect online banking and secure networks, relies on the inherent impenetrability of very large numbers, even by cutting-edge supercomputers. But a reasonably advanced quantum computer could crack these kinds of codes in far less time, potentially weakening a significant portion of the world’s security.

The race to supremacy is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s not clear how close anyone really is the finish line. But whether it’s reached this year, next year, or in a decade, quantum computers will likely be big news. And still very, very strange.

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