101: The quantum vendor market race is hotting up
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101: The quantum vendor market race is hotting up

“In China there is a tonne of money going in [to quantum computing] and no public record coming out,” said Jaya Baloo, CISO at Dutch telecoms company, KPN, at a recent Kaspersky event in Dublin.  

Baloo is a very cogent and forthright individual. She was on the steering committee for the European Commission’s work into quantum technology – the EU is putting €1bn ($1.18bn) into this, a sum it only matches with its Human Brain Project and it graphene research. However, as Baloo points out this is significantly less than the $15bn that Chinese vendor, Alibaba, is putting in on its own (although this figure covers other areas too). And even this is still only the tip of the iceberg.

The global race is most definitely on to crack quantum computing with vendors and nations alike getting stuck in. Baloo has been involved in various public trials across Europe. Yet, she believes many Chinese initiatives are quietly going on behind closed doors with the 2,000km Quantum Communication Line between Beijing and Shanghai already the most advanced thing of its kind out there.

Everyone’s talking about it, but just how close is quantum computing?

Everything looks a little different in the vendor space. Quantum computing presents the opportunity for behemoths like IBM, Microsoft, Intel and Google – along with established startups like Rigetti Computing – to stamp their name onto the next wave of computing.

This will open up a whole new level of processing power to solve previously unanswerable problems. As Neil Bramley, B2B client solutions business unit director for Toshiba in North Europe put it to me recently: The basic building blocks of computing are set to morph from maths to physics. Global Industry Analysts forecasts its global market to reach $2 billion by 2024, a growth which is primarily driven by a constant need for the most secure online data transmission possible.”

 

What is quantum computing?

The main premise of quantum computing is that instead of binary mathematical bits, comprising of either ones or zeros, it utilises qubits – which are based on physics – and can be both ones and zeros at the same time. This is easily as hard as it sounds. Firstly, qubits are extremely unstable and heavily impacted by physical conditions, which means, amongst other things, they require special refrigerated hardware. Secondly, the software is a whole new ballgame.

The promise is immense though. As quantum computing is non-binary it scales up exponentially. So, while 10 qubits is equal to 16kb of RAM, 40 qubits is worth 16tb of RAM. And although it would take a classical computer a billion years to break RSA, it would take a quantum computer 100 seconds.

The trouble with the space is that everyone is making big announcements and it is hard to make sense of what any of them actually mean in practice. Intel, for example, has a 17-qubit chip. Google is testing a 20-qubit processor and should have 49-qubit chip ready by the end of this year. IBM has a 20-qubit computing system that's accessible via the cloud and recently announced a 50-qubit machine. While Microsoft offers a desktop version which simulates 20-qubit operations and cloud option which could extend this to 40-qubits.

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All this is further complicated by D-Wave – which was the first company to sell quantum computers and is owned in part by Google – and announced a 2,000-qubit chip last year.

 

Where are we at with quantum computing?

The thing is, as Microsoft was keen to reiterate over and over again at a recent London event, “qubits are not created equal”. Their instability makes them very susceptible to errors – and correcting errors costs more qubits. Microsoft claims it is counteracting all this by building error protection into the hardware phase.

Yet beyond this, quantum computers themselves are also not made equal. Most do not exist at all and they’re very much in the trial phase. But beyond this there are levels of quantum computer. At the very basic level are quantum annealers – as demonstrated by D-Wave. The next level up would be an analogue quantum computer, which Baloo believes will be ready in about five years. And the final level is a universal quantum computer, which is still a long way off.

“For all well and lesser-known vendors, there is some way to go for hardware-based quantum computing,” clarifies Marne Martin, CEO of ServicePower. “Only until stable, noise-free qubits, which are a unit of quantum information, exist and are collected together in large enough quantities, can a hardware-based quantum computer be painstakingly configured to represent a useful problem.

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“At the same time, the problem of how to quantify and grade the output of a such a machine must be solved – most likely in a classical fashion,” he adds.

The big vendors are all doing everything they can to get ahead in the field. In 2016 Microsoft hired Dr Leo Kouwenhoven – who Baloo describes as one of the major world authorities on quantum computing [2013 CV as a PDF]. He was involved in the discovery of Majorana particle – which as he describes it – was “glimpsed in 1937” and eventually found in 2012.  

The Majorana particle is important to quantum computing because it helps makes qubits more scalable and resistant to noise. The analogy Kouwenhoven uses is a row of chairs with a split particle at either end of each row. If instead of hanging on each end, these split particles join up to become a circle, they become complete and therefore stronger.

“As with any early stage technology, it's tempting to pick winners, but quantum computing's future is going to take multiple parallel paths,” Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research tells us. “Each vendor's success will depend on their ability to convert their research into viable capabilities.

“IBM is fostering ecosystem development that's impressive. Google's lab efforts have yielded good density improvements. Microsoft's program has an approach that, if successful, could get it to practical implementations. For all of these, real success depends on being able to put them to work,” he says.

The software side of the equation also presents a challenge. Microsoft announced a new programming language recently, as did IBM and Rigetti Computing. However, at this point it might still be hard to convince developers to produce programs for computers that don’t exist yet.  

At the minute it is seems there is everything to play for. On the prosaic level, quantum computing could speed up number crunching and all the capabilities of machine learning. And this will certainly generate a lot of money for the organisations that produce the equipment. While at the other, more ‘blue sky’ end of the scale, once it finally arrives quantum computing will offer processing capabilities which can truly and absolutely mimic the universe.

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