What does a future with quantum computers look like?

27 Oct 2023

Image: © Bartek Wróblewski/Stock.adobe.com

Ulrich Seyfarth of BearingPoint discusses the hurdles facing quantum computers, the benefits of simulating nature and the potential risks this technology could present.

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Quantum computing is an exciting and evolving deep-tech sector, which could transform parts of society when it comes to fruition.

These powerful machines are capable of processing vast amounts of data and could eventually solve problems that are far too advanced for modern supercomputers, which would lead to enormous benefits for humanity.

But the journey to get there is not easy, with a variety of technological and scientific hurdles to overcome before these we can create true quantum computers.

Ulrich Seyfarth is a manager in BearingPoint’s Munich operations. He said that a lot of effort has been made to solve the issues surrounding quantum computers, but there is still a long way to go.

“Major challenges include the number of information carriers (qubits) needed and the ability to compute long-running calculations due to the impact of noise and decoherence effects which must be mitigated by powerful error-correction methods,” Seyfarth said.

“The current stage of quantum computing is called NISQ (noisy intermediate-scale quantum), more a playground to get used to quantum computing, than a stage where we can gain from powerful new solutions. That horizon however, is approaching.”

Many researchers are working to bring us closer to fault-free quantum computers. Last month, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claimed they found a new way to hit 99.9pc accuracy in certain quantum operations.

Earlier this year, quantum computing company Quantiniuum claimed it was able to accurately simulate a hydrogen molecule by using an error-detecting code.

The potential benefits

When – or if – we get to the stage of general-purpose quantum computers, Seyfarth said there are various ways these machines could be used to benefit society. One way would be to simulate aspects of nature, as “nature is quantum”.

“Quantum theory is a fundamental description of the physical behaviour of our world,” Seyfarth said. “Computers that speak the same language as nature are best suited to simulate it.

“The potential for new discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology and other foundational sciences is immense. Research will be a key application of quantum computing in revealing new discoveries as foundations for applications across many industries.”

Quantum computers could also help to break past certain bottlenecks in modern technology, such as miniaturisation. For example, Seyfarth said circuits are now operating at such a small scale that quantum phenomena are posing “significant challenges to the continuity of Moore’s Law”. This is the principle that the number of transistors incorporated in a densely populated chip will double every two years.

“We are reaching manufacturing limits, at a time when the demand for computational power is increasing rapidly,” Seyfarth said. “Many organisations are reliant on an ability to process increasing volumes of data, faster.

“A fundamental change in computation capability is necessary and this is driving the significant investment we see in quantum computing technology.”

While various challenges exist, Seyfarth predicts that the future of quantum technology is “promising” and that new quantum hardware, algorithms, processing methods and other breakthroughs will develop in the future.

“The development of quantum compilers, abstract languages and available computational power in the cloud and middleware platforms will lead to easier access to this technology – also creating new industries and ecosystems around it,” Seyfarth said.

While there is no clear prediction for when quantum computing will become truly available for businesses, Seyfarth said organisations should develop an understanding of their data processing needs for the future and the potential quantum computing may have to help them to “remain competitive”.

“Those that start early in developing their understanding of the technology and its likely implications, will be better positioned to harness its power,” Seyfarth said. “If you think that quantum computing technology is potentially relevant to your future business, a good starting point is to invest in developing some internal knowledge within your organisation.

“As the technology becomes more accessible from an R&D perspective, consideration could be given to potentially start pilot projects, though [it] will be important not to invest too heavily in a single technology provider at this early stage.”

The risks of new technology

Transformative technology also has the potential to create negative consequences when it is first introduced, such as generative AI being used as a tool to spread disinformation and boost cyberattacks.

Quantum computing is no exception to this rule and Seyfarth said organisations and society need to address the new risks that new technology presents.

“In an era where computational power is an important driver for our economy and our society – there is a possibility that access to this power becomes centralised to a small number of entities,” Seyfarth said. “This may lead to imbalances in competitive advantages in industry.

“Of course, there is also the potential for certain jobs to be rendered obsolete, while demand for other new roles is created – so there will be an onus on society to ensure that adequate supports are in place to facilitate retraining.”

Another key issue in the digital world is cybersecurity and the way new technology can shake up this landscape. Quantum computing presents a risk due to its potential to break modern cryptography – which is used to encrypt data and communications.

Experts have warned about the risk of hackers stealing and storing encrypted data, for the purpose of decrypting it quickly once quantum computers become a more accessible reality. This is sometimes referred to as ‘store now, decrypt later’ tactics.

“Secret data that must be secured for more than 10 years is already exposed to future attacks,” Seyfarth said. “Organisations should prepare risk mitigation actions, including analysis of data encryption methods in use and implementing future-proof encryption methods where necessary.

“Post-quantum cryptography, a technology that is similar to current cryptographic solutions, but with higher requirements computational power and key sizes could serve to minimise risk – another area to keep an eye on from a standards maturity perspective.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic