How Close Are We to a Commercial Quantum Computer?

At the beginning of 2019, IBM unveiled its first commercial quantum computer. Fast forward to January 2020, and the company claimed at CES 2020 that we are now in the decade (the 2020s) of quantum computing. With that, IBM urged developers to start pushing the envelope in terms of learning how to program quantum computers and how to use them to solve complex problems. They see the quantum train coming, and it’s going to get here sooner rather than later.  

Although IBM has no immediate intentions of selling its “Q System One” device yet, the achievement nevertheless represents the continued efforts to produce a quantum computer that can be sold to the public; and it begs the question at the forefront of so many minds in this field: When will we have a commercial quantum computer – a viable one, anyway? 

Quantum computers are getting increasing attention because of the tremendous power they will have – all by harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. They will be able to run circles around today’s computers, solving problems infinitely faster than the world’s most powerful supercomputers. 

Google, in fact, claimed it achieved “quantum supremacy” by demonstrating the use of a quantum computer to perform a calculation (in just 200 seconds) that would have taken the most powerful classical computer tens of thousands of years to complete. Though the claim was instantly controversial, the implications this has for medical research, artificial intelligence and a wide range of other fields are enormous. Of course, another impact will be the ability of these computers to break the encryption we rely on today to keep our data secure. Whether that data is personal data or national security-related data, the cybersecurity threat is significant. It’s certainly something we need to be concerned about now.

When Will We Have a Commercial Quantum Computer?

Quantum computers moved from the conceptual stage to the experimental production phase in laboratories in the late ‘90s. In 1998, a 2 qubit NMR quantum computer demonstrated a quantum algorithm for the first time. Fast forward to today, and quantum computers have developed to the point of processors such as IBM’s quantum computer. The computers may still be in the labs, but they are here nevertheless, and we need to start thinking about the impact they will have now.  

Estimates for when we will see a viable commercial quantum computer  – outside the lab – vary, although it’s safe to say that it’s just on the horizon. Progress made over the past year, and emphasis placed on promoting the development of quantum skills by key companies such as IBM indicates that the timeline will only speed up. Bringing a quantum computer online as soon as possible is certainly the goal for the major industry leaders, even if they are approaching that goal from different angles. 

Google announced in September that it achieved “quantum supremacy”, which sparked quite a reaction. Controversial though it was, what Google did is proof of what is possible, and it underscores the reality of the threat that quantum computers will pose – or already poses – to the security of our data today. We can’t wait until quantum computers come online to start worrying about protecting our data. 

We need to take measures now to defend against what quantum computers will be able to do in the future in terms of encrypted data. China may be lagging behind the U.S. in terms of developing quantum computers, but considering the amount of investment that they are making in quantum technology overall, we can expect they will try to step up their game in this aspect as well. Meanwhile, as work continues on quantum computers, data is already being harvested from bad actors just waiting until the day they can access a quantum computer to decipher it. 

Overcoming the Hurdles to Creating Quantum Computers

The problem with building a quantum computer is that it is difficult and expensive, to the tune of millions of dollars. The difficulty stems primarily from the challenge of working with fragile qubits and tricky phenomena like decoherence. 

Traditional computers operate by using “bits”, combinations of 1s and 0s, whereas quantum computers use “qubits”. Qubits exist in a combination of 1s and 0s and, which makes them much more powerful but also significantly more fragile to work with. In conjunction with this, quantum computers are extremely sensitive to noise, interference and other environmental factors – a phenomenon known as decoherence. No matter how careful the operator is, these perturbations can easily affect the quantum state within the computer and disrupt any calculations being made. Quantum computers take up a lot of space, require extremely low temperatures to operate, and are still very delicate.

Quantum computers have come a long way from the early projects in the ‘90s; but because of the finicky nature of quantum mechanics, it will take more time and money to move them completely out of the research phase and into commercial production mode. How soon that happens depends on how much progress scientists make in overcoming the various hurdles involved with quantum particles and qubits. 

The National Quantum Initiative Act will help, since part of the  $1.2 billion earmarked for quantum research will be used for building a quantum computer. Industry leaders IBM, Google, and Microsoft, not to mention a large number of start-ups, are also investing significant time and money into developing quantum computers. And they are making progress, as evidenced by IBM’s computer unveiled at the beginning of the year. 

When you really think about it, quantum computers are here now.  

In the lab or not, achievements like IBM’s computer means that we need to think about the second and third order effects of those computers now. The impact they will have on our current encryption methods requires action before it’s too late. Quantum-safe encryption technologies, such as Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), needs to be incorporated into security solutions now to ensure that data isn’t vulnerable to the powers quantum computers will have sooner rather than later. 

In addition to the internal competition to create a quantum computer, the race against China, Russia, and other nations is another significant factor to consider. China’s push for supremacy in quantum technology will almost certainly come to fruition if we don’t step up our game in the field. And even if nobody has a truly viable commercial quantum computer yet, the threat still exists that the Russians or the Chinese will have enough quantum capability to hack data any day now. 

It’s hard to say when exactly that quantum computers will be commercially available, but there is certainly plenty of competition to drive the timeline to the right. The prudent course of action is to make sure all steps are taken to be prepared well in advance.

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