Interested in quantum computing? Here are the big players and their goals

Google's Sycamore processor (Google)

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The last major piece of quantum computing news in 2019 came just before the holidays, when Google claimed to have reached quantum supremacy, or the point where quantum computers can do things classical computers (like laptops and desktops) can’t.

Google’s feat, according to some, is a historic achievement akin to the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Others say it’s less like the flight itself and more like the reaction to it -- “rumors and half-truths leaked out in dribs and drabs between 1903 and 1908, the year Will and Orville finally agreed to do public demonstration flights,” Scott Aaronson wrote.

Almost immediately after Google published its supremacy paper, rival IBM wrote a blog post arguing that Google wasn’t being totally honest, because the task its quantum processor performed could have been done in 2.5 days by a well calibrated, classical machine.

Quantum computing coverage, like the subject of this blog, is sometimes so enthusiastic (or pessimistic) that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. In this post, we’ll outline who the major researchers are and what they’re doing, and what it will mean if they’re successful.

Google

Google, arguably the frontrunner in the space recently, has invested $400 million in a national quantum lab. Its 54-qubit Sycamore processor was the machine behind its recent supremacy bid (a qubit is the quantum equivalent to a regular computer bit, which is the smallest unit of data created and stored).

Google’s achievement, while impressive, is only a benchmark -- it has no practical use outside of proving speed. Google acknowledges this, and has announced they’ll share the technology with the wider research community and will develop a general purpose, fault-tolerant quantum machine that can perform other tasks under normal conditions.

They say it will take years to produce a fault-tolerant machine, but that their recent quantum supremacy claim holds true. “The original Wright flyer was not a useful airplane,” Scott Aaronson later told the New York Times. “But it was designed to prove a point. And it proved the point.”

Amazon

Instead of building their own quantum machine, Amazon recently announced an AWS service called Braket that allows developers to write quantum algorithms and test them on simulated quantum machines in AWS. It’s also partnering with start ups making their own machines, and selling access to their devices through the cloud.

IBM

IBM, like Google, builds its own quantum machines. But like Amazon, it sells access to them to enterprise clients in the cloud. Recently, they announced that they have 100 customers for those services, including Delta Airlines, JP Morgan Chase, and Daimler.

Mercedes, owned by Daimler, has researched how the technology can be used to create batteries for electric vehicles, an early promise of the technology. Quantum machines allow battery developers to simulate a designed battery’s real world chemical reactions long before the prototyping stage. This could help confirm whether long sought-after ideas, like lithium-sulfur batteries, are worth pursuing.

Benjamin Boeser, a research director at Mercedes R&D, explained how they use it: “We could simulate the actual behavior of a battery with a quantum computer, which is currently not possible with existing computer power.”

Microsoft

Microsoft, like Amazon, is selling access to quantum simulations and real machines on its cloud platform using hardware partners. Perhaps the most covered use-case so far is its partnership with Ford, who is using its “quantum-inspired technology” to develop navigation routing software that “could consider all the various route requests from drivers and optimize route suggestions so that the number of vehicles sharing the same roads is minimized.”

The company’s hardware division is doing something odd, however. It’s betting it can develop a theoretical “topological qubit,” which it says will be more stable than those underlying Google’s Sycamore or IBM’s machines. The topological qubit, however, is considered an esoteric idea even in the quantum industry, so anything can happen.

The United States

President Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act into law in December, 2018. In the time since, Congress has directed over $400m toward quantum research and development.

The technology is of special interest to national governments because of its potential to upend traditional cryptography and encryption, which serves as the backbone for most advanced internet security.

China

Like other sections of its tech industry, China’s quantum work is outsized and ambitious. There is, for example, a government-encouraged program to launch satellites and lay fiber optic cables capable of transmitting information via qubits rather than classical bits. Communication via qubits, which simultaneously store multiple values at once, would make eavesdropping nearly impossible, and possibly replace traditional encryption as a security protocol.

“I predict China will go black in two to three years — we won’t be able to read anything,” Jonathan Dowling, a physics professor, said in an interview with the Washington Post.

It’s likely that whoever makes large breakthroughs will also sell or open source parts of the technology. An ongoing patent race, not just between companies but also between the US and China, is heating up. While China leads in quantum technology for cryptology and general communication, the US leads in patents for quantum computers, led by companies eager to expand their hardware and cloud services. Communication, however, is perhaps the most vulnerable (and promising) area of focus for governments.

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