Back in December, I had the privilege to attend my very first ever Quantum Computing conference and it will certainly be a conference that I’ll never forget.
Some takeaways from this conference:
Quantum Computing is one of the most exciting technologies right now
There is such a vibe in the industry right now, filled with excitement, positive naiveness, craziness, fear of failure, and everything else you’d expect.
Although Shor derived an algorithm in 1994 that is capable of breaking all asymmetric encryption (PKI), Quantum Computing was mostly theoretical up until a few years ago and the acceleration in Quantum Computing hardware both in the numbers of qubits and the stability in the last few year alone is astonishing.
To hear from John Preskill, Professor at Caltech, who is at the core of the current quantum computing revolution and one of the most vocal people in this field, was more than inspiring. This – combined with Scott Aaronson, Professor of Computer Science in Austin Texas, who is so quirky, funny and just awesome to listen to – was one of the highlights of the conference.
Quantum Supremacy and the need to prove it
Quantum Supremacy means that Quantum Computers can solve problems that classical computers can’t. Problem is that with the current small and unstable quantum computers, that’s not an easy feast to prove.
While Quantum Computers are getting better and better, it seemed to me that it is bothering this fairly new community that they need to prove something to the world. There are still a lot of sceptics around Quantum Computing and I almost feel that people are too pre-occupied by this idea of Quantum Supremacy.
For me personally it’s pretty simple. If I have a task to do and Quantum Computers produce better or faster results, I’m sold. Period.
Cryptography is everywhere
Coming to the Quantum Computing field as a non-physicist and more from the cryptography angle, it was absolutely mind-blowing to see cryptography at the center of everything that’s happening.
Scott Aaronson even elevated cryptography to the center of his presentation where he stipulated that cryptography may be the best bet to prove quantum supremacy. Funnily enough random numbers are at the heart of all of this and I’ll follow up with a blog post on random numbers in the context of quantum computers as I would have never thought that something “as easy” as random numbers can be so hugely complex that Quantum Computers have to deal with it (once you dig deeper)!
Shor’s algorithm was obviously also at the heart of most of the discussions and there was a half-day workshop dedicated to post-quantum cryptography. Basically the question to “if a Quantum Computer will exist in say 10 years time, what can we do right now to protect us” as obviously every file you encrypt today could be decrypted in 10 years time quite easily. Now that doesn’t bother me for my personal pictures, but if those files are classified top-secret documents or confidential banking documents, you really have to deal with this problem right now.
Quantum Computing Hardware
As a “software” guy, to hear from all the various Quantum Computing hardware providers was so inspiring, it is hard to put into words. Everybody was here, such as Jerry Chow (IBM), Chad Rigetti (Rigetti), Julie Love (Microsoft), Christopher Monroe (IonQ), Bo Ewald (D-Wave) and also industry players such as BMW, Airbus and others.
Everybody heard about D-Wave, but to hear from their CEO was awesome, same for Rigetti and the “big boys” such as Microsoft, IBM, Google.
But the show stole Christopher Monrow from IonQ who presented some incredible results from their Quantum Computer. In the Quantum Computing world right now, it’s not just the number of qubits, its how “stable” they are and how you can interact with them and it seems that IonQ is onto something here…
Big practical problems to be solved
People are getting to the end of what they can get out of classical computers and they turn to Quantum Computers for solutions. Many of these problems have been theoretical in nature, but that has been shifting for a while and there was a big focus in this conference on practical applications for Quantum Computers. Problem is that all these are really hard problems, but if you are interested, Airbus put together 5 problem statements where they have high hopes of getting further with Quantum Computers. They are:
- Aircraft Climb Optimization
- Computational Fluid Dynamics
- Quantum Neural Networks for Solving Partial Differential Equations
- Wingbox design Optimisation
- Aircraft Loading Optimisation
The idea is that these problems are solved not just in 10 years, but right now. You can check out the ‘Airbus Quantum Computing Challenge’ here: https://www.airbus.com/innovation/airbus-quantum-computing-challenge.html
What an exciting time to be in this industry and I truly believe 2019 will be game changing. However more exciting is that we at QuintessenceLabs use quantum effects to provide solutions right now. Scott Aaronson spent half his presentation talking about random numbers… Guess what, the fastest and highest quality random number generator using quantum effects comes from QuintessenceLabs 🙂
Especially the topic of cryptography and post-quantum cryptography is very exciting with the need to come up with a clever way to harness the power of quantum effects for the everybody’s benefit. Shor’s algorithm is threatening to break current PKI infrastructure, so let’s find something that harnesses that power for the better good.
Many such initiatives are underway. At QuintessenceLabs we are also gearing up to showcase the second generation of Quantum Key Distribution, which uses quantum effects to distribute a symmetric key from point A to point B. That happily beats Shor – as there is no key exchange algorithm that can be broken. The keys are distributed by the law of physics (heavily simplified).
I’m sure many other approaches will emerge. That’s why this is such an exciting time.
The best quote of the conference was “Pessimists say quantum is 20 years out. Optimists say it’s 3. The realists are preparing today,” (William Hurley, CEO Strangeworks).
Andreas Baumhof, Vice President of Quantum Technologies
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