Tech giants battle to make the quantum leap in computing
Deep inside a Google laboratory in Mountain View, California, is a closely guarded and extremely cold refrigeration unit.
Inside is a computer the company hopes could change the world.
Shaped like an upside-down tiered cake, the machine has no visible interface, no keyboard or screen.
Instead, it is a mass of connected copper cables and wiring, wrapped around metal cylinders, culminating in one big microchip.
Google is among the tech giants to have spent decades and millions of dollars on a race to build “quantum” computers, capable of making complex calculations in hours that would take normal computers billions of years to complete.
Google’s research project is part of an international drive to master quantum computing that pits it and other US companies, including IBM and Microsoft, against Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Huawei.
Quantum computers harness the power of physics on a subatomic level by using quantum bits or qubits.
Unlike computers today, in which bits – the most basic binary element of a computer – must have a value of either zero or one, a qubit can represent a zero, a one, or both values simultaneously, delivering massive gains in computing power.
Google has a 72-qubit quantum computer – possibly the most powerful in the world.
In as little as five years, experts believe these quantum computers could be ready for practical deployment.
They hold the promise of helping to find better materials for manufacturing and construction, and could eventually help improve and create medicines that help to treat the world’s worst diseases, including cancer and Aids.
“The upside is tremendous,” Microsoft’s Dr Krysta Svore said.
“We are only beginning to scratch the surface of what quantum can solve.
“With a quantum computer, we can begin to understand the problem of global warming and how we can capture carbon and could save our planet.”
Whoever cracks quantum computing stands to licence the technology through the cloud for countless potential applications, gaining thousands of new clients from aeronautics to financial services to government agencies.
Just as importantly, the technology will offer a huge strategic advantage to the West or to China.
But there is quite a caveat: if the technology falls into the wrong hands, it could be used to access anyone’s private information online, to intercept bank transfers, hack government databases and destroy the technology that ensures private communications – end-to-end encryption.
“Whoever gets the quantum computer first will have access to that unlimited power that will nullify classic cryptography,” Colin Wilmott, a quantum computing expert at Nottingham Trent University, said.
“Classic computers would be under extreme strain with quantum computing.
“Whether it is secure web browsing or digital signatures, they need to be aware that there is a tech out there that could put all of this at risk.”
Unfortunately, businesses are still in “discovery mode” regarding how this might affect them and they lack safeguards, Vadim Lyubashevsky, IBM quantum scientist, said.
“If you are embedding cryptography into something, such as satellites and cars, the tech you put in has to be robust against the eventuality that quantum could break crypto-computing,” he said.
“The process needs to have been started by now.”
Barclays chief technology officer, Dr Lee Braine, said. “Some will say it could be three to five years away. Companies such as IBM say it’s 20-30 years.
“If you look at figures from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US, they have a view that financial institutions should start planning ahead assuming 10-plus years for a quantum computer that is powerful enough to crack cryptography,” he said.