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  • Exploring the frontiers of quantum computing

    Image courtesy: Delft Electronics

    Source: EE Times

    The area of quantum computing has garnered significant interest from scientists, engineers and technology enthusiasts due to its innovative nature. In contrast to classical computers, quantum computers leverage the distinct characteristics of quantum physics to perform information processing through the utilization of quantum bits, commonly referred to as qubits. The deviation from traditional computing principles presents an opportunity for exploring a novel domain of possibilities, hence enabling the resolution of intricate challenges that were previously deemed impossible.

    Quantum computing is currently at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation, with rapid developments stretching the limits of what’s possible. Moreover, the frontiers of quantum computing extend beyond computation. Quantum communication, quantum cryptography, and quantum sensing are flourishing fields that offer novel methods for securing information and advancing our understanding of the physical world. Additionally, as quantum hardware becomes more accessible, a vibrant ecosystem of entrepreneurs and research institutions is contributing to the rapid evolution of this field.

    Some of the main practical applications of quantum computing, according to a study conducted by Yole, are shown in Figure 1. Regarding specific applications, pharmaceutical (drug discovery) garners the most interest in quantum computing at present. Quantum computing, however, won’t be extensively utilized in the medical and pharmaceutical fields for several decades.

    Figure 1: Main application areas in which quantum computing can play a key role (Source: Yole)

    Following the adoption of quantum computing in the pharmaceutical industry, other applications like energy, chemistry, transportation, banks and finance may implement quantum computing in a decade or more.

    The fundamental tenets of quantum theory that bear direct relevance to quantum computing encompass superposition, entanglement and interference. Superposition denotes the capacity of a particle to exist in multiple states concurrently; entanglement refers to the correlation between particles, even when they are spatially distant; and interference denotes the phenomenon wherein particles can either amplify or cancel each other out.

    Current technology in quantum computing

    The field of quantum computing has progressed beyond the realm of theoretical conjecture. In recent years, notable advancements have been achieved, propelling us toward the realization of viable quantum computing systems.

    The major achievements in quantum hardware have led to:

    • Superconducting qubits: Utilizing superconducting qubits is one of the primary technologies in quantum computing. These qubits, typically composed of niobium, are chilled to temperatures close to absolute zero to exploit their quantum properties. IBM, Google and Rigetti have developed qubit-based superconducting quantum processors.
    • Trapped Ion qubits: Trapped ion qubits are another promising approach. Electromagnetic fields and lasers are used to manipulate ions in this process. This technology has been advanced by companies including IonQ and Honeywell, demonstrating high-fidelity operations and the potential for error correction.
    • Topological qubits: Microsoft is currently leading the way in researching topological qubits. The functionality of these qubits is contingent upon the utilization of non-abelian anyons, which are peculiar states of matter. These anyons store and manipulate quantum information, endowing the qubits with an inherent resistance to specific categories of mistakes.

    With the continuous advancement of hardware, there’d a corresponding development in quantum software and algorithms. Encompassing a broad spectrum of fields, these applications include:

    • Shor’s Algorithm: The ability to factor huge numbers at an exponential rate compared to classical techniques has substantial consequences for the potential compromise of present encryption technologies.
    • Grover’s Algorithm: The acceleration of database search and optimization issues is quadratic compared to traditional methodologies.
    • Quantum Simulations: The utilization of quantum simulations in drug development and materials science has the potential to bring about significant advancements in both fields.

    When considering software and hardware system stacks, it’s evident that quantum computers necessitate a fundamentally diverse software framework compared to classical computers. Presently, two separate methods are being observed in this regard:

    • Several prominent corporations are currently developing quantum computers, with the creation of proprietary programming languages.
    • Many emerging firms are presenting quantum technology-agnostic software solutions that have the potential to be utilized across several quantum platforms, including industry leaders like Google and IBM.

    Challenges of quantum computing

    Nevertheless, quantum computing isn’t devoid of its inherent issues. Quantum systems exhibit a high degree of fragility and vulnerability to external factors likenoise and errors, hence demanding the implementation of advanced error correction algorithms and hardware enhancements. The persistent challenge lies in the creation of practical quantum algorithms that can effectively address real-world challenges.

    According to Alain Aspect, a French physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2022 for his pioneering work in the field of quantum mechanics, quantum computing currently faces two major obstacles:

    • The first is decoherence, which is primarily associated with atom shielding and chilling.
    • The other difficulty is the possibility of arbitrarily connecting any site to any other site.

    However, he believes that there’s no fundamental impossibility in solving these problems; it’s simply a matter of engineering and excellent ideas. For a quantum computer to be both affordable and commercially available, three additional obstacles must be overcome:

    • Utilizing surface code error correction to detect and repair the fragile quantum states of individual qubits.
    • Development of hardware-independent software, or software that’s independent of the hardware platform on which it operates.
    • Developing new electronic hardware to control and read individual qubits, as well as cryogenic hardware.

    The creation of a quantum computer presents unprecedented design challenges due to the need to maintain individual qubits as stable and unchangeable as possible. To minimize noise as much as feasible, this frequently necessitates generating temperatures close to absolute zero. Consequently, quantum computing hardware is typically kept in a cryogenic dilution refrigerator.

    The difficulty then lies in interfacing the low-temperature quantum device with control electronics that typically operate at ambient temperature. Considering that next-generation quantum processors will be able to integrate more than a thousand qubits, this procedure necessitates extremely intricate wiring.

    Figure 2 depicts a quantum computer in detail and emphasizes some of the intricate wiring involved in the design of quantum computers. While a standard coaxial cable could be adequate for addressing and reading a few dozen qubits (at the expense of a non-negligible burden), higher-density interconnections are still required—both from a physical dimension standpoint and to reduce conduction heat in the dilution refrigerator.

    Figure 2: A quantum computer with some connections highlighted (Source: Delft Circuits)

    Future steps in quantum computing

    Significant advancements have been achieved in quantum computing, yet numerous obstacles that require further attention and resolution persist. The following are many significant domains in which future advancements are anticipated:

    • Error correction: Environmental variables and decoherence can lead to errors in quantum computers. The implementation of error-correcting codes plays a critical role in the development of dependable and scalable quantum machines.
    • Quantum advantage: Also known as quantum supremacy, this term denotes the juncture wherein a quantum computer surpasses the computational capabilities of the most advanced classical computers. To achieve this objective, it will be imperative to persistently explore and expand the limits of quantum hardware and algorithms.
    • AI: The utilization of quantum computing to augment machine learning and AI algorithms exhibits significant promise, as it facilitates the more efficient resolution of intricate problems.
    • Cryptography: The field of quantum communication and cryptography holds the potential to provide unparalleled security by leveraging the fundamental principles of quantum entanglement. The establishment of a quantum internet and the development of secure quantum communication channels will have a profound impact on the area.

    Security is also a major concern, as the advent of quantum processors capable of executing Shor’s algorithm would render insecure all asymmetric cryptographic algorithms, including RSA, ECC, and those based on integer-factoring mathematical problems, discrete logarithms, and discrete logarithms on elliptical curves.

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