Advancements in quantum technology promise to transform the manner in which the current digital world operates. Computation technology is at the precipice of a quantum revolution.
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Achievements in academic laboratories are currently being transitioned into commercially available products and services. While the technological progress has been rapid, there are prevailing technical and societal challenges in commercializing quantum technology.
Quantum technology exploits the quantum nature of matter to develop useful devices. Hardware and algorithms are built upon the unique behavior exhibited by matter in the quantum regime. Quantum mechanics was developed in the early 20th century to overcome the inconsistencies observed in classical physics when describing microscopic matter.
Digital computers work on the basis of bits. All digital data is encoded in bits as binary entries. Rapid development in semiconductors and transistors in the late 20th century made digital computers faster and physically smaller. As the digital computing industry approached the limits of Moore’s law, quantum effects were observed. Traditional digital components now had to account for quantum behavior.
The unique characteristics of quantum mechanics allow it to represent data in more than binary states. Quantum bits, or qubits, are the quantum mechanical counterparts of bits. Except, qubits can be in a superposition of many states and provide exponentially higher degrees of versatility for computing. For example, n number of qubits offers 2^n number of states.
Quantum computing offers exponentially faster processing times. Computations that can take months, or years, on the fastest digital computer cluster can be accomplished in minutes using a quantum computer. The ability to reduce computation times and resources by a quantum machine is termed “quantum advantage.” There are also many calculations that a digital computer cannot process that a quantum computer is able to handle. This ability, known as “quantum supremacy,” is expected to revolutionize many industries in the future.
Quantum technology development is driven along four major criteria. The pillars along which the quantum technology roadmap is structured are computing, communication, sensing, and simulation.
Qubits for quantum technology are generated from one of several physical platforms. These are based on ion traps, neutral atoms, solid-state quantum emitters, superconducting qubits, and photonics. Each platform has its pros and cons. The choice of which platform to use is determined by the application and the projection of the developmental pipeline.
For qubits to be useful they have to be isolated and shielded from the environment. The properties of quantum mechanics that parley qubits into useful units are superposition, entanglement, and coherence. Longer coherence times of qubits directly account for the quality. Longer coherence times allow for keeping the qubits entangled for longer periods and allow for more operations to be performed. But environmental forces, like thermal fluctuations and vibrations, can cause decoherence quickly. So it is vitally important to shield the qubits from any outside disturbances. This is a technological challenge faced by the quantum industry.
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Due to decoherence, qubit operations incur errors over time. To correct errors, several error correction schemes have been proposed and implemented. But the error correction methods are based on entangling more qubits as spare ones. This approach increases the number of qubits that are needed and adds to the overall challenge of protecting coherent qubits.
For quantum computers to outperform classical computers, a large number of operational qubits are required. At the current state of development in quantum computers, the order of qubits reported by various organizations has reached the order of 100s of qubits. But it is predicted that much more qubits - an order of number more or larger - will be required to reach quantum supremacy. Scaling the number of qubits has been another challenge for quantum computing. Formulation and application of new technical ideas are ongoing to scale qubit production.
Quantum Technology in the Market
Some quantum applications have matured further than others in their developmental progress. Quantum sensing companies like Qnami AG and QZabre LLC, which use nitrogen-vacancy centers in diamonds, have now been established for a few years and are delivering sensing devices commercially.
Many government and private entities are heavily investing in quantum technology. With the amount of promise and growth exhibited, governments have taken initiatives to support R&D at academic and industrial levels. The EU Quantum Flagship and the US Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes are examples of some governments driven funding programs. Start-up incubator setups have also been initiated to accelerate the growth of commercial quantum companies.
Several private companies have also sprung up in the quantum computing space providing hardware, software, and full computation access. Major corporate tech giants like Google, IBM, etc. have established quantum computing platforms based on supercomputing qubits. IonQ and Alpine Quantum Technologies use ion trapping platforms for quantum manipulation while QuEra Computing Inc. and PASQAL are examples of neutral atoms-based quantum computing businesses.
With the power of quantum computing, the consequences of privacy and security are a rising concern. While a fully functioning quantum computer may not be hackable, the technology afforded by the development could potentially be a threat to national security as well as civil privacy. Regulating quantum technology at the national and international levels needs careful planning and implementation. Continuous dialogue at branches of government with expert input is expected to shape the future of regulations.
Another challenge facing the quantum industry is the availability of a skilled workforce. Introductory quantum mechanics has always been taught as part of an undergraduate physics curriculum. More adept knowledge is only attained at Ph.D. level of instruction. There is a growing need to train the next generation of quantum scientists and administrators from a younger age.
The evolution of the entire quantum ecosystem can fuel drastic improvements in many parts of life. In the pharmaceutical sector, the ability to study, simulate and design new drugs quickly has a monumental impact in healthcare. Quantum technology is positioned to assist in that endeavor. Further, the financial industry can use quantum computing to optimize and predict market fluctuations quickly with better accuracy. Infrastructure construction, manufacturing, the space industry, and transport logistics are some of many examples that can benefit from quantum technology.
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References and Further Reading
Mohseni, M., Read, P., Neven, H. et al. Commercialize quantum technologies in five years. Nature 543, 171–174 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/543171a
Hilton, J. (November 19, 2019). Quantum's Road To Commercialization | Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2019/11/19/quantums-road-to-commercialization/?sh=7646b5d4158a
Bobier, J., Langione, M., Tao, E., Gourévitch, A. (July 21, 2021). What Happens When ‘If’ Turns to ‘When’ in Quantum Computing? | Boston Consulting Group (BCG). https://www.bcg.com/publications/2021/building-quantum-advantage
Colin D. Bruzewicz, John Chiaverini, Robert McConnell, and Jeremy M. Sage , "Trapped-ion quantum computing: Progress and challenges", Applied Physics Reviews 6, 021314(2019) https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5088164