The race to build the world’s first true quantum computer is on, with huge potential payoffs for businesses that harness the technology before their competitors.
The computers we use today represent information in binary bits – on/off, 0/1 – while a quantum computer's qubit can, in simple terms, be both on and off the same time. That means many computations can be performed in parallel; a quality that, when fully realised, will give quantum computers a huge speed advantage over ‘classical’ computers in solving certain problems.
Microsoft and IBM are ploughing significant sums into related research. Google, NASA and Lockheed Martin have invested in a D-Wave 2X — described by its maker as the “world's first commercially available quantum computer”, although debate rages over its capabilities. (It is likely capable of quantum annealing; that is, able to solve a specific subset of quantum computing problems).
Two of Australia's biggest companies, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) and Telstra, have also joined the field, backing local efforts to build a silicon-based quantum computer.
Although a quantum computer that can deliver useful business outcomes for enterprises may be some years off, the bank and telco are beginning to prepare themselves for the impact of the technology. As CBA’s executive manager of technology innovation, Dilan Rajasingham, put it: “We’re not going to wait for the machine.”
Over the horizon
Rajasingham is responsible for “looking at over-the-horizon type tech” and quantum computing appeared on his radar around five years ago. In 2014 the bank committed $5 million to the UNSW’s Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) in Sydney, where scientists are racing to build the world’s first scalable silicon-based quantum computer. CBA topped up that investment with a further $10 million in December last year.
CQC2T is making strides towards its goal. Although there could be multiple ways to build such a machine, their efforts in silicon appear to be promising. In October last year its researchers built a quantum logic gate, making calculations between two qubits possible. The following month they wrote and manipulated a quantum version of computer code in a silicon microchip. In June the team made another leap, identifying the precise location of a single atom in a silicon crystal.
“It’s not just about the papers and the cool research,” Rajasingham said. “These guys are serious. The papers along the way are to prove that they’re leading the world. For them it’s about the machine. Their focus is on delivering something of practical value.”
“Can you believe it? Here! It’s just down the road. The impact is immense,” the CBA exec added.
Dr Hugh Bradlow is Telstra’s chief scientist and former CTO, and described by the company as “our very own technology clairvoyant”. He’s cautious about picking a winner in the quantum computing race: “Until someone succeeds in making a quantum computer out of one or more of these technologies [silicon, superconducting, ion trap and topological], that is scalable and manufacturable, it will not be possible to say who is ahead.”
Nevertheless, CQC2T's effort, Bradlow said, “is well on the way to proving the scalability of the solution” and the use of silicon is a “promising approach to achieving manufacturability first.”
The early investment in the research means CBA can bring a “commercial lens and a customer lens” to CQC2T's effort, Rajasingham said. Bradlow said Telstra's early involvement means it can “shape the applications of the quantum computer they are building”.
Rajasingham said that for CBA, the biggest potential application for quantum computing is in real time, multi-variable analytics, with the bank keen to use those insights to better serve customers.
“Our differentiator is around customer intimacy,” he explained. “How do we retain customer intimacy if information or data explodes and tends towards infinity as we become more connected, more sensored up? Also the way that we look at data, the insights that we find, become more complex through deep learning and machine learning.
“So in this future state we’ve got all this information and you’ve got all this ability to analyse the data — you need something that can do it in real time because that’s what customers demand.”
An example might be offering customers the products best suited to them via augmented reality as they walk down the street, Rajasingham said. Within the business, it could be used in risk management, procurement, optimising portfolios, even efforts to predict financial markets.
Telstra sees potential in quantum computers for ‘neural network optimisation’, which can be used for real-time network traffic management.
“Telstra is an information technology services provider,” Bradlow said. “Information services are rapidly moving to ‘brain inspired’ computing which will require computing at an unprecedented scale due to the abundance of data. They key issue is being able to scale the computing capability without a massive blowout in energy usage.
“The possibilities of quantum computing are very real for us, and we want to help those possibilities become a reality.”
Preparing for the quantum era
Efforts are already being made within CBA to get engineers and data scientists thinking in quantum terms to build an in-house quantum capability. They're also working to support the small ecosystem of companies and organisations working in quantum
“We’re not just going to sit here and let the future happen to us; we’re going to prepare ourselves,” Rajasingham said. “It’s not like – ‘this thing’s here, oh my god, what do we do?’
“This journey that we’re going to go on is going to start opening people’s minds.”
Similar efforts are being made at Telstra too, Bradlow said: “Quantum computing is a step change in complexity, both from the point of view of how they are used and how they work. Organisations will need years of lead time in order to prepare themselves for the change in the way of thinking that is required.”
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