A quantum computer in a vibration-free building. Quantum computing will eventually accelerate the computing power that drives many industries and could affect everything from drug discovery to securing data.
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Quantum computing was already accelerating in Japan and elsewhere in Asia when the University of Tokyo and IBM launched their new quantum computer last year.
The computer was the second such system built outside the United States by IBM – the latest in a series of key advances in quantum research.
The university and IBM led the Quantum Innovation Initiative Consortium alongside Japanese industry heavyweights like Toyota and Sony, all in an effort to solve the quantum question.
Quantum computing refers to the use of quantum mechanics to perform calculations. Quantum computing can run multiple processes at once using quantum bits, unlike the binary bits that power traditional computing.
Challenging American “hegemony”
The new technology will ultimately accelerate the computing power that drives many industries and could affect everything from drug discovery to securing data. Several countries are fighting to get quantum computers fully operational.
Christopher Savoie, CEO of quantum computing company Zapata, who has spent much of his career in Japan, said technology development was very US-centric. But now Asian countries don’t want to be left behind on quantum computing, he added.
“Nation states like India, Japan and China are very interested in not being the only ones who don’t have any capabilities there. They don’t want to see the kind of hegemony that happens where the big cloud aggregators are usually just American companies,” Savoie said, referring to Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.
China, for example, has devoted a lot of brains to the quantum race. Researchers have touted breakthroughs and debates are simmering over whether China has overtaken the United States on some fronts.
India, for its part, earlier this year announced plans to invest $1 billion in a five-year plan to develop a quantum computer in the country.
James Sanders, an analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence, told CNBC that governments around the world have taken more interest in quantum computing in recent years.
In March, Sanders released a report that found governments pledged around $4.2 billion to support quantum research. Notable examples include South Korea’s $40 million investment in the field and the Singapore Ministry of Education’s funding of a research facility, the Center for Quantum Technologies.
Where will it be used?
All these efforts have a long perspective on the future. And to some, the benefits of quantum may seem nebulous.
According to Sanders, the benefits of quantum computing won’t be immediately obvious to everyday consumers.
“On bad days, I turn people off the idea of quantum cellphones. It’s not realistic, it’s not going to be a thing,” he said.
“What is likely to happen is that quantum computers will end up being used in the design of products that consumers will end up buying.”
There are two main areas where the quantum breakthrough will be felt: industry and defense.
A staff member of technology company Q.ant places a chip for quantum computing at a test station in Stuttgart, Germany on September 14, 2021. The power of quantum computing is expected to can decrypt RSA encryption, one of the most common encryption methods for securing data.
Thomas Kienzlé | AFP | Getty Images
“Areas where you have HPC [high-performance computing] are areas where we will see quantum computers have an impact. It’s things like materials simulation, aero simulation, that kind of stuff, very high and difficult computational problems, and then machine learning artificial intelligence,” Savoie said.
In the pharmaceutical field, traditional systems for calculating the behavior of drug molecules can be time-consuming. The speed of quantum computing could rapidly increase these processes around drug discovery and, ultimately, the drug-to-market timeline.
On the other hand, quantum could present security challenges. As computing power advances, the risk to existing security methods also increases.
“The longest term [motivation] but the one that everyone recognizes as an existential threat, both offensively and defensively, is the realm of crypto. RSA will eventually be compromised by this,” Savoie added.
RSA refers to one of the most common encryption methods to secure data, developed in 1977, which could be disrupted by quantum speed. It is named after its inventors – Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman.
“You see a lot of interest from governments and communities who don’t want to be the last people in the neighborhood to have this technology because [other nations] will be able to decipher our messages,” Savoie said.
Magda Lilia Chelly, chief information security officer at Singaporean cybersecurity firm Responsible Cyber, told CNBC there needs to be a dual track of encryption and quantum research and development so that security is not overwhelmed. .
“Some experts believe that quantum computers will eventually be able to break all forms of encryption, while others believe that new, more sophisticated forms of encryption will be developed that cannot be broken by quantum computers,” Chelly said.
A quantum processor on a prototype quantum computer. There must be a dual track of encryption and quantum research and development so that security is not overwhelmed, said Magda Lilia Chelly, chief information security officer at Singaporean cybersecurity firm Responsible Cyber.
Julian Stratenschulte/dpa | Image Alliance | Getty Images
“Especially, [researchers] looked for ways to use quantum computers to quickly factor large numbers. This is important because many modern encryption schemes in use today rely on the fact that it is very difficult to factor large numbers,” she added.
If successful, this would break most current encryption schemes, allowing encrypted messages to be unlocked.
Sanders said the development and eventual commercialization of quantum computing will not be a straight line.
Issues such as the threat to encryption may attract the attention of governments, but research and breakthroughs, as well as public interest, can be “stop-start”, he said.
Progress may also be affected by fluctuating interest from private investors, as quantum computing will not provide a quick return on investment.
“There are a lot of situations in this industry where you might have a lead for a week, then another company will come up with another kind of advancement, and then it’ll all calm down a bit.”
Another looming challenge for quantum research is finding the right talent with specific skills for that research.
“Quantum scientists who can do quantum computing don’t grow on trees,” Savoie said, adding that cross-border collaboration is needed in the face of competing government interests.
“Talent is global. People cannot choose their country of birth or their nationality.”