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The 21st Century space race: building a quantum computer

Tech and Innovation

Posted on August 29, 2017

4 min read

This week the Federal Minister of Industry launched a new company called Silicon Quantum Computing (SQC) Pty Ltd. SQC is a joint venture between the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the Commonwealth Government, Telstra, and the Commonwealth Bank which aims to commercialise the world leading quantum computing research that has been conducted at UNSW for nearly 20 years.

Quantum computing has been described (by me) as “the 21st century space race” because it has the potential to go beyond the limits of today’s computers in solving certain key problems. Examples include the ability to simulate molecules (e.g. for medical research or chemical production), optimisation of complex mathematical systems (e.g. the routing of paths through a telecommunications network or the determination of a bank’s risk position) and setting the parameters in machine learning algorithms. Someday quantum computing may even allow us to perform homomorphic encryption whereby we can give an organisation our personal data for them to use, but that data remains entirely encrypted while they perform calculations on it, thereby greatly enhancing individual privacy. As people spend more time thinking about quantum computing an increasing number of possibilities keep opening up.

Why am I calling it a ‘space race’? Because governments and companies around the world are literally spending billions of dollars on quantum technology research in an effort to be the first to achieve ‘quantum supremacy’, which is defined as the ability of a quantum computer to perform a calculation which cannot be performed on a classical computer. Given the early stages of these developments, there is no clarity as to when quantum supremacy will be achieved, but it is likely to be within 5 to 10 years.

A look inside the quantum computing lab at UNSW (photo credit: UNSW)

Research groups around the world are testing different technologies, all of which have one thing in common – they exploit the mystical properties of quantum mechanics to create a ‘qubit’, the quantum equivalent of a computer bit. Unlike ordinary bits, which can either be in state 1 or 0, a qubit exists in a complex combination of both 1 and 0 at the same time (known as “superposition” – have you heard of Schrodinger’s cat?). This allows quantum computers to exploit the desire of nature in the quantum realm to perform parallel calculations, thereby creating the speedup compared to classical computers. To give a specific example, let’s assume that we have a giant directory of all the approximately 10 billion devices that are connected to the internet and we want to find a specific device for which we have the IP address. On a classical computer, we would need to go through all 10 billion entries to find our device, which on average would take about 5 billion attempts. A quantum computer, however, would only need about 100,000 attempts to achieve the same result.

There are three main approaches to making qubits – using the properties of superconductors (the most popular technology, which is favoured by US companies such as IBM and Google), ions trapped in an ‘electromagnetic cage’, and atoms trapped inside a silicon semiconductor. The latter is very attractive in that, once all the technical issues are resolved, it provides a path to manufacturing at scale because it uses the same manufacturing techniques that are employed in today’s silicon chips. This is the path that the UNSW researchers have followed and they are world leaders in this technology.

Telstra is committed to becoming a world class technology company and if quantum computers do represent the next generation of computers, we shall be well placed through our investment in Silicon Quantum Computing Pty Ltd to be a globally leading provider of quantum computing cloud services.  In collaboration with our partners, the Commonwealth Government, UNSW, CBA, it is exciting to be right at the forefront of this incredible new technology.