Quantum Computing: What is it, and why should I care?

In 1965—the early days of Silicon Valley—Moore's law predicted the doubling of processing power of traditional computers every 18 to 24 months. But as scientists reach the hard limit for the number of tiny transistors we can fit onto a silicon chip, the world looks to quantum computing as the key to unlocking the processing power that will answer problems traditional computers cannot solve. And for insight into a future beyond silicon, one needs to look no further than a region that has been coined "Quantum Valley." Invest in Ontario was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit The University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) to find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions the investment community has about quantum computing.

What is quantum computing?

"Traditional computers are binary, meaning that they use switches that can be either 'on' or 'off,' represented by a '1' or a '0.' They can thus only work on one calculation at a time, in sequence," explains Vito Logiudice, Director of Operations, Quantum Nanofab, a facility shared by IQC and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN). "Meanwhile, quantum computers take advantage of the laws of quantum mechanics, which govern atoms, electrons and other particles." These quantum bits, or 'qubits,' can occupy the state of both a '1' and a '0' at the same time, and this ability to be in what is referred to as a state of 'superposition' means that a quantum system can process potentially millions of calculations simultaneously.

What are the possibilities of quantum computing?

Quantum computers will allow us to bypass the limitations of traditional computers. Chris Warren of the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC)'s Engineered Quantum Systems lab explains. "For one thing, [quantum computers will cause] all of our data to eventually become public. This is because our current encryption system relies on security provided by multiplying by large numbers (of 500 digits or more). But Shor's algorithm explains how a sufficiently large quantum computer will be able to decipher contemporary cryptographic algorithms." What will we do when a quantum computer renders our encryption useless? The answer, of course, will be to rely upon a new form of quantum cryptography.

What is challenging scientists from developing powerful quantum computers?

"Quantum computers have yet to out-power the world's fastest classical computers, and that's because scientists need to overcome the challenge of quantum decoherence," says IQC's Deputy Director and Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo, Kevin Resch. Decoherence refers to the relationship between the quantum systems and their natural environment. To understand, imagine a spinning coin as a representation of a qubit. While it spins, the qubit can be said to occupy the states of ‘heads' and ‘tails' at the same time. But when you observe the state of the coin to be either 'heads' or 'tails' the coin is no longer in a quantum state.

What can quantum computing offer us right now?

Although challenges exist, quantum technologies are already in use. For example:

  • Through collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and ComDev, scientists at IQC are currently pursuing quantum encryption through free space via satellite.
  • Quantum sensors and actuators developed at IQC will allow scientists to navigate the nano-scale world with remarkable precision and sensitivity. Such tools will be invaluable to the development of true quantum information processors.

What does the future of quantum computing hold for us?

Today, leading centres for quantum research including the University of Waterloo, Stanford, MIT and Yale have helped lead to the development of 3, 7, 12 and 16-qubit quantum computers. "[But] things start to get really interesting around 30-40 qubits. Those would begin to push the limits of the world's most powerful classical computers," says Resch.

Advanced quantum computers will allow us to study, in remarkable detail, the interactions between atoms and molecules. This will open up opportunities to design new drugs and materials, by harnessing the ability to search through a space of potential solutions much faster than currently possible with traditional computers.

Where is research into commercially viable quantum science taking place?

The Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo is attracting world-class talent that is leading developments that promise to provide mankind with a brighter future.

The quantum revolution is already under way, and the possibilities that lie ahead are limitless.

Learn more about the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing

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