IBM quantum computer.  (Photo: IBM)

Talking about the quantum world and its applications generates fascination. It is not surprising, it really is a field that amazes more every day. The quantum computingfor example, is a subject that has been much commented on lately due to the great advances that are being made.

Perhaps we even think that this technology will be the future of computing and information technology and that, at some point, all current computers will be replaced by a new generation of quantum computers, just as it happened with typewriters or a computer. countless other technologies that became obsolete and forgotten.

But is this so? Will this new technology really replace the classic computing systems that we use today? The truth is, no. Or at least, for now, it is not possible to conceive of it.

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IBM quantum computer. (Photo: IBM)

So what is a quantum computer and what is it for?

A quantum computer exploits the properties of mechanics quantum to solve problems. There are two in particular that are quite useful for this purpose.

The first is the overlap. In a classical computing system, the unit of information is called a bit and can have a value of one or zero. In a quantum system, on the contrary, the qubit (or quantum bit), which can be one and zero at the same time.

The second property is the interlacing. Basically, it refers to the fact that two systems, even though they are not in the same place, They can be related in such a way that if we affect one, the other is also affected..

“Exploiting these two properties can solve certain types of problems in a timescale that with classical computers it would not be possible to achieve”, explains to Trade Omar Ortiz, professor of physics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP).

Omar Ortiz is a professor of physics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP).
Omar Ortiz is a professor of physics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP). / Omar Ortiz

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Ortiz illustrates the differences between the two computing systems as follows. In the lower image, on the left side, a Galton board is observed. In this one, when you drop a ball, it will follow a path as it bounces off the pegs. This is an allegory to the classical system. In quantum, what you have is that you don’t always follow a single path, but you can explore all the paths simultaneously.as graphically represented in the quantum boson sampling (on the right side of the image), where a photon enters an array in which there are splitters and bifurcates between them.

A classical Galton board on the left and photon-based boson sampling on the right.  From the website of Ian Walmsley Walmsley (Oxford).
A classical Galton board on the left and photon-based boson sampling on the right. From the website of Ian Walmsley Walmsley (Oxford). / Ian Walmsley

With these properties, what can a quantum computer do?

“The idea of ​​quantum computing is that the computational capacity expected from these systems is abysmally greater than that of current computers to solve certain types of problems such as factoring large numbers, molecule design —which has many applications in the pharmaceutical industry—, database lookup, optimization problemsamong others”, comments the PUCP professor.

In this way, a quantum computer could solve in just a few minutes a complex problem that would take one of the best current computers thousands of years.

To put us in perspective, Robert Loredo, IBM’s Quantum Ambassador, explains to this Daily thatthe number of classic bits we would need to simulate the processor [cuántico] IBM Eagle, with 127 qubits, would be greater than the number of atoms contained in the more than 7,500 million people on Earth.

quantum advantage

A view of Symacore, Google's quantum computer.
A view of Symacore, Google’s quantum computer.

In 2019, Google said that its quantum processor Sycamoreof 53 qubits, had for the first time outperformed a supercomputer on a particular task.

The technology giant claimed that Sycamore was able to perform in just 200 seconds a specific task that the best supercomputers in the world would have taken more than 10,000 years in completing.

This event marked a milestone in the history of quantum computing, since the quantum advantagewhich is nothing other than the demonstration that such a computer can solve a specific problem that a normal computer could not in a reasonable amount of time.

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Present and future

What is the future of quantum computing?
What is the future of quantum computing? / pixbay

The possibilities that open up with this technology are enormous. Eventually, companies like Amazon could calculate how to distribute their merchandise better managing the amount of fuel on a global scale, a pharmaceutical company could find the design of stable molecules that have the properties that certain drugs require, banks could develop systems to reduce the uncertainty and risk of business, among many other applications.

“Quantum computing could begin to significantly transform the financial services landscape in the coming years,” comments Lorenzo. “Today, several high-profile institutions have invested resources to scale quantum computing for finance, including JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, and Goldman Sachs. They are all investigating potential applications ranging from derivative pricing to portfolio optimization and trade settlement. For example, the Goldman Sachs quantum research team has published a study detailing initial assessments of the quantum resources required to achieve a quantum advantage in derivatives pricing.” adds the IBM specialist.

Robert Loredo, IBM Quantum Ambassador
Robert Loredo, IBM Quantum Ambassador / IBM

But, although all this sounds wonderful and in theory it is possible to achieve it, there is still a lot of development to be done. “All these applications require systems with many, many qubits (we are talking about millions). And now there is no platform that has that capability. In addition, they do not have to be any type of quibits, they have to be very robust, resistant to noise”says Omar Ortiz. “So, the goal of having a quantum computing system that impacts society is still a bit far”, points out.

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That’s why, the current approach is to look for very specific problems so that quantum computers can demonstrate quantum advantageand it is not necessary that they have a practical utility.

Taking this into account, the idea that in the near future the computers and processors that we use in our day to day will be replaced by quantum models is ruled out. In fact, both systems will continue to work together trying to find solutions to a wide range of very specialized problems.

“Our goal is to build quantum-centric supercomputers, which will incorporate quantum processors, classical processors, quantum communication networks, and classical networks, all working together to completely transform the way we compute”says IBM’s Loredo. “To do so, we must solve the challenge of scaling quantum processors, develop a runtime environment to provide quantum computations with higher speed and quality, and introduce a serverless programming model to allow quantum and classical processors to work together seamlessly. friction”, limits.

The technology company has announced that next year Condor, its 1,121-qubit processor, will hit the market and they plan to have, by 2025, a system with more than 4,000 qubits.

Quantum Platforms: Qubits and Photons

Borealis quantum system detail - Source: Xanadú
Borealis quantum system detail – Source: Xanadú

For their part, the researchers are also working on finding the best quantum computing platform, since although the superconducting qubit platform —which we have been talking about so far— is the most developed, there are others under experimentation and development. For example, quantum photonic processors, a field in which Omar Ortiz is developing.

“There are things that contrast a lot from platform to platform. Qubits, for example, are something physical, they are inside a chip. And managing to preserve the information of the superposition is very difficult, because is quickly affected by the environmentfor something called decoherence, a process that basically turns the qubit into an information bit; that is, it loses the quantum properties. To avoid this, the qubit has to be prevented from interacting with the environment, so cools to very low temperatures. We talk about 20 millikelvin [aproximadamente -273 grados centígrados], a little above absolute zero. Also, the processes that are carried out to prevent the loss of information have to be very fastdetails the physical.

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“Instead, in the photonic arrays there are photons that carry the information —just like a quibit does— in its polarization degree of freedom. If a photon is left traveling, it’s not going to lose information because the photons don’t interact with each other very much. Unless they hit a wall or something, that information is going to follow.” add.

Last week, a team of scientists from the Canadian company Xanadu first achieved quantum advantage in a photon system. In just 36 microseconds they completed a task that would have taken 9,000 years. There is a lot of expectation about it.

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