Cue the quantum!

The end of the line

Since it was first conceived by Alan Turing in 1936 – the classical computer hasn’t really changed – theoretically your laptop and mobile phone are the same as the room-sized behemoths of a half-century ago.

What has changed, and dramatically so, is the size of the transistor, and by direct extension the speed of the microprocessors and their abilities for longer calculations and complex operations.

“The algorithms have gotten more complex, the basic unit steps have not,” says Heather Logan a professor of particle physics at Carleton University.

Professor Heather Logan explaining the difference between bits and quibits.

However, the many operations a computer has to do to achieve a task hasn’t changed- i.e. if you want your computer to send an email, the computer still has to do a million operations to complete the task.

According to Moore’s Law, roughly every 18 months the size of the transistor halves. Right now commercial transistors are about 44 nanometers across with 22 nanometers soon to enter the market.

A threshold is looming. The shrinking of transistors will, within the next decade or two, reach the scale of individual atoms, the smallest they can get.

By this logic, at around 2020 we will have the fastest ‘classical computer’ possible. Once we pass this threshhold, we start working on the atomic quantum scale- and things change. “Its like a wall coming, we are already entering into the quantum world as we approach it, but we don’t really know how it works yet,” says Logan.

Enter the quantum

Researchers at the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at Waterloo say they are ready.

“This, from a physics standpoint, is a whole new ballgame,” says Martin Laforest, senior manager of scientific outreach at the IQC.  Operating at this level completely changes computing. Once you start working at this level, it doesn’t respond to the limitations of classical physics, you are into the realm of quantum, and things behave differently.”

“If you can control the behaviors, essentially you have tapped into the most powerful thing that nature allows you” says Laforest.

What is most radically different is that “ when you are always dealing with a bit [in classical computing], it is in one state- one or zero. In quantum you are dealing with a quibit and you can manipulate that to be every possible iteration of the binary code” says Logan.

Institute for Quantum Computing’s photon quantum key distribution system

For one, things are faster, “You need exponentially less operations, which means less resources, and is exponentially faster as an end result” says Laforest. That million-operation task on a classical computer no longer takes a million operations.

Photon Quantum Key Distributiom

“We can use the laws of Quantum physics to compute and it exponentially speeds up our processing power”.

Essentially, Quantum computing is trying to simulate a molecule, mimic the behavior of nature on its smallest scale and use that to compute with.

In this sense we can start actually simulating molecular behavior- “molecules, drugs, super-conductors- material science, the applications are limitless,” says Laforest.

 The potentials

Martin Laforest teaching at the Institute Quantum Computing.

Logan and Laforest have big money behind their claims.  In March, Blackberry founders Mike Lazaridis (also the pioneering force of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics) and Doug Fregin announced the establishment of a $100-million dollar Quantum Valley Investments fund. The pair is set on making Canada the leader in Quantum computing.

“Nothing you see in the classical technology world can prepare you for what you will see in the quantum technology revolution,” Mike Lazaridis said in a statement. “Our belief in the power of quantum physics to transform society inspired us to develop a strategy some 12 years ago that led to the world-class quantum research capability that exists in Waterloo today.”

Even still, this is only a fraction of the money being poured into all things Quantum right now. Lazaridis invested more than $250 million of his own money just in the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics and in the Institute for Quantum Computing. That, in turn, seeded millions in government contributions, which Laforest expects to continue to roll in.

The realities

According to Laforest, we are still at the vacuum tube stage of quantum computing right now.

Logan agrees, “We know the theory, we just don’t know how to apply it yet.”

We are still at the stage of pairing the two – classical and quantum. “In order to figure it out, we need to simulate it, but we don’t have the power to simulate it on a classical computer. We know its properties and we know how it behaves, but we need to control how it behaves,” says Laforest.




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