A MONUMENTAL leap in computing power is on the horizon and world governments and powerful tech companies are jockeying for position in an all important new tech race.
Quantum computers — which process information at the scale of elementary particles — could operate millions of times faster than today’s most advanced supercomputers. They offer the extraordinary potential to analyse in minutes problems a conventional computer could take thousands of years to solve.
The technology is still in its infancy but it’s predicted that it could have a major impact on healthcare, communications, financial services, transportation, artificial intelligence, weather forecasting and many other areas.
Some even say it could lead to a “cryptocalypse” in national security where state secrets, your emails, bank accounts and credit cards are no longer safe because quantum computers could break traditional internet security programs.
It’s this sort of speculation that has seen the race for quantum computing likened to the Manhattan Project, the team of US scientists who won the race to build the first atomic bomb.
On Monday in the US, the White House held a summit on the topic with administration officials, academic experts in the field of quantum information science and leading companies including Google and IBM.
The reason for the gathering was about “advancing American leadership in quantum information science,” the White House said. It’s a field of emerging science it desperately wants to lead.
The event included officials from the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, NASA and many other US government departments.
Professor Michelle Simmons from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) is widely renowned for her world-leading research in quantum physics and was also in attendance at the White House summit.
“It was really about talking about the long term strategy of what they’re going to be doing in the US,” she told news.com.au.
“There is still a lot of the fundamental and applied research that needs to happen before it becomes completely commercial. There’s lots of different areas in the quantum space — there’s quantum sensing, quantum communications, quantum computing and fundamental quantum technology.
“A lot of things are still unknown towards applications for the future,” she said.
The summit was organised by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and according to reports was fuelled in part by a fear among US elites of growing competition in the field from China.
But Prof Simmons says because the science is in such an early stage, it hasn’t reached the point of an arms race yet.
“It is a race because it’s such an exciting field and there’s a lot happening … but I think there’s also a very healthy level of respect that it is still in the research phase,” she said.
The overall spending by China is not known, but the government is building a $AU13.7 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, Anhui Province, which is slated to open in 2020.
In order to better compete with Chinese efforts, earlier this month the US approved legislation on quantum information science to “create a unified national quantum strategy” that would authorise $AU1.8 billion in funding through 2023.
Quantum computing “will enable us to predict and improve chemical reactions, new materials and their properties, as well as provide new understandings of space-time and the emergence of our universe,” the White House said. “Remarkably, this progress may be realised within a decade.”
Scientists and university researchers in the US hope strong government backing will help attract a broader group of engineers and entrepreneurs to their nascent field. The goal is to be less like the cloistered Manhattan Project physicists who developed the first nuclear weapons and more like the wave of tinkerers and programmers who built thriving industries around the personal computer, the internet and smartphone apps.
According to Prof Simmons, Australia has a high level of co-ordination and international collaboration when it comes to quantum science which puts us among global leaders in the field.
She directs the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, a role that helped her be awarded the 2018 Australian of the Year.
In her acceptance speech in January, she said Australia was well placed to realise the next revolution in computing.
“The significance of this for Australia should not be underestimated. Today, there is an international race to build a quantum computer and the field is highly competitive,” she said.
“This is a capability with widespread application … Indeed, a US defence firm has predicted that 40 per cent of all Australian industry will be impacted if we can realise this technology.”
WHAT IS QUANTUM COMPUTING?
Describing the inner workings of a quantum computer isn’t easy, even for top scholars. That’s because the machines process information at the scale of elementary particles such as electrons and photons, where different laws of physics apply.
Conventional computers process information as a stream of bits, each of which can be either a zero or a one in the binary language of computing. But quantum bits, known as qubits, can register zero and one simultaneously.
At UNSW, researchers have focused on pioneering unique technologies to develop quantum computers using silicon materials.
“The Australian team at UNSW decided back in 2000 to focus on silicon,” Prof Simmons said. “That has left us in a position where we’ve got very high quality qubits which we think in the long term will be very commercially viable, and that’s something we’re very excited about.”
WHAT COULD IT DO?
In theory, the special properties of qubits would allow a quantum computer to perform calculations at far higher speeds than current supercomputers. That makes them good tools for understanding what’s happening in the realms of chemistry, material science or particle physics.
That speed could aid in discovering new drugs, optimising financial portfolios and finding better transportation routes or supply chains. It could also advance another fast-growing field, artificial intelligence, by accelerating a computer’s ability to find patterns in large troves of images and other data.
One reason for the heightened US interest is that a quantum computer could in several decades be powerful enough to break the codes of today’s best cryptography.
Today’s early quantum computers, however, fall well short on that front.
— With AP