Playing the Long Quantum Game
by Tommaso Demarie.
Quantum computing excites and yet deeply confounds people. The word quantum allures technologists with the promise of a sci-fi future where formidable computers will solve all of humanity’s problems. At the same time, common inexperience with quantum theory (or computer science, for that matter), causes them to fall prey to distorted simplifications.
A quantum computer controls and leverages the unique behaviour of quantum systems to process information. A quantum processing unit, or QPU, can harness quantum effects, such as entanglement and interference, to vastly outperform conventional computing systems — at least for specific problems. The vision of data centres equipped with QPUs is good news for modern society, which relies on ever-growing computing power for its survival.
Now that we are starting to understand the limitations of artificial intelligence, quantum computing has begun replacing it in the imagination and wishful thinking of the deep tech community. We have read them all: quantum for climate change, quantum to cure cancer, quantum to find a COVID vaccine. Though some areas may be overhyped, there is certainly much to celebrate. In particular, the last five years have witnessed unparalleled growth in the quantum computing industry.
Commercial Quantum Computing
Day zero for the industry was the 4th of May 2016. With a bold move, IBM launched the IBM Quantum Experience, a quantum computing platform on the cloud. Anywhere, anyone equipped with an internet connection, a laptop and a good dose of curiosity, could run algorithms and experiments on a real quantum processor, for free. For the majority of quantum practitioners, the Quantum Experience meant freedom. Freedom to test their theories far beyond the sporadic collaborations with the few academic groups who owned prototypical QPUs.
Fast forward to October 2019 and Google takes the quantum industry by storm announcing the first experimental demonstration of ‘weak quantum supremacy’ (taxonomy à la Will Zeng). They claimed that by using a 54 qubit quantum processor, called Sycamore, they exceeded all existing classical supercomputer in solving a highly complex, albeit of no business value, mathematical problem. For the first time.
The validation that even a relatively small and imperfect quantum computer is capable of a task beyond the reach of any other technology was hard to underestimate. As the Google team put it, the industry entered a new era in quantum developments. We are now just one smart algorithm away from solving hard problems of business value with quantum computers. Mind though, finding that algorithm is not an easy feat.
Most of the other tech giants were quick to follow suit. Among them, Microsoft, Amazon, Alibaba, Honeywell and Intel all stand side-by-side with IBM and Google on their quest to establish a global quantum computing ecosystem. They are not alone. Dozens of startups joined the ranks, contributing to building a new quantum computing stack from the ground up.
Living at a time of on-demand computing, Microsoft has recently announced Azure Quantum, while AWS started Braket. Both are cloud services that allow users to run algorithms on different quantum backends. The sceptics like to point out that the first useful application of quantum computing remains elusive. However, this unprecedented availability of quantum devices is inciting a global effort to understand the real-world use cases for quantum computing.
The Quantum Ecosystem in Singapore
Look at Singapore now. The City State houses one of the world’s leading quantum hubs, the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at NUS. As of today, alumni of the Centre have already founded five startups, focusing on quantum communication, sensing and of course, computing. This buzz of entrepreneurial activity shows the intention to elevate Singapore as the Asian gateway to quantum.
Entropica Labs is one of these CQT startups. Initially founded in 2018 by Dr Ewan Munro and myself, our goal is to enhance applied mathematics using quantum computers. And in turn, make quantum computers useful. We work across three domains: Quantum optimisation, quantum machine learning and raw quantum computing, which includes all the essential ingredients to run quantum computations. Every day, we connect through the cloud and run countless experiments to get the best out of the existing quantum hardware.
If we were to fully embrace a startup’s idiosyncrasies and write a single inspiring word on the office’s wall, that world would be pragmatism. Yes, the technology is not ready to deliver business value yet. Yes, it will take some time for the technology to fulfil its promises. Nonetheless, now that multiple quantum computers are available on the cloud, companies like Entropica have a significant role to play.
On the one hand, we help quantum hardware partners to prepare for commercial use by benchmarking their devices and testing new algorithms and techniques. On the other hand, we collaborate with corporates and public agencies to identify use cases where quantum computers could create the most impact in the shortest time. The rule, for us, is to avoid inflating exaggerated claims and perpetuate the hysteria of proving quantum advantage at all costs.
The quantum computing industry is gearing up for acceleration. To fully cross the chasm between academia and enterprise, the existing ecosystem needs to expand further. In a domain mostly influenced by physicists, this expansion includes welcoming talents from other disciplines. To those aspiring pioneers who would have loved to contribute to the early days of computing, you now have another chance. And opportunities are waiting for you in Singapore.
A copy of this article appeared in October 2020 in AsianGeek — Technology done Asian. As always, simplifications, omissions and views are solely my own.