IP Expo: Quantum computing is really cool, no really

News by Roi Perez

Jay Gambetta, a research manager for IBM took to the stage this morning at IP Expo Europe 2016 to explain the advances IBM are making in research into quantum computing.

What's clear from Jay Gambetta's talk at IP Expo Europe 2016 is that we're still way off from having a full understanding of the quantum computing's full capabilities.

As a researcher of quantum theory for IBM, Gambetta started by stressing just how fundamentally different quantum computing is from conventional forms.

Gambetta said that in that conventional form “the states are reliably distinguishable, and can be observed without disturbing the system. To specify the joint state of two or more systems, it is sufficient to specify the state of each one separately.”

In comparison to quantum computing, Gambetta said that merely “attempting to observe a state in general disturbs it, while obtaining only partial information about the state.” That is to say, the uncertainty principle. .

Perhaps further complicating things, Gambetta said that, “two systems can exist in an entangled state, causing them to behave in ways that cannot be explained by supposing that each particle has some state of its own”. Putting this in extreme layman's terms - a zero  can also be a one or be both at the same time.  

So why does this all matter so much? Gambetta said thanks to Shor's algorithm, which proved that factorisation can be done exponentially faster on quantum computing, means that should we be able to make a functional quantum computer, we'd be able to solve mathematical problems which are currently way out of reach, or a bit too difficult for conventional computing.

However, Gambetta highlighted that quantum computing is still very much in its infancy. Showing pictures of old IBM mainframes, Gambetta made the comparison: “in terms of conventional computers, we're still on the level of punch cards.”

They require lots of cooling too, operating in temperatures found in outer space. When Gambetta said this there was an audible ‘wow' in the auditorium, perhaps demonstrating how little we really know about this kind of computing.

However it is without doubt that when they get there, the benefits of quantum computing could be felt in many areas, including but obviously not to limited to quantum chemistry where scientists require the ability to process immense amounts of data for molecular simulations, in order to analyse how it behaves. It could be used for quantum chromodynamics and hadron simulations and for quantum enhanced optimisation.

According to Gambetta, one of the main areas which quantum computing is, for the lack of a better word, feared, is in cryptography. Should they gain enough power, quantum computers would be a lot quicker at guessing the keys to decrypt information.

However there are currently lots researchers looking into quantum key distribution, with some commercially available solutions that use quantum cryptography as their basis.

In an attempt to bring quantum computing to the masses, and allow scientists to experiment with the technology, IBM has now emulated how a quantum computer works and put it into an online game of sorts which can be found here.

The idea is to create a community of scientists and scholars from around the world so the technology can be explored and understood.

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