In October 2019, humanity, thanks to Google, entered the quantum era. Google's 54 qubit Sycamore processor needed only 200 seconds to perform a calculation that would have taken 10 000 years to do with our modern supercomputers.
200 seconds to perform a calculation that could take 10,000 years to complete...
In an article published in the journal Scientific Nature in October 2019, Google claims that its 54 qubit Sycamore processor needed only 200 seconds to perform a calculation that today's supercomputers would have taken 10 000 years to do.
Although the validation of the calculation will still take a few centuries, the fact remains that Google becomes the first to have " l 'advantage quantique ". This term was coined by John Preskill, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology. He " décrit the point where quantum computers can perform tasks that no conventional computer can do... ".
Quantum computing is still in its infancy. But it could revolutionize tasks that existing computers take years to accomplish. Examples include the discovery of new drugs or the optimisation of urban transport.
The short story
The quantum computer was imagined in 1980 by the Nobel Prize winner in physics Richard Feynmane. It works in a completely different way than regular computers. It is based on the amazing properties that certain objects have when reduced to the subatomic level or when exposed to extreme cold. Like the metal cooled to nearly -460 degrees Fahrenheit (-273 degrees Celsius) found in Google's machine.
But Google wasn't the first. In fact, 2012 was the year of the "greatest quantum computational feat". It was carried out by a team from the University of Bristol in England. The researchers managed to factor 21, i.e. to show that this number breaks down into 3 times 7, thanks to a photonic device. Although the mathematical performance was modest, it used Shor's algorithm to factor numbers and find prime numbers. Prime numbers are very important in our current encryption processes.
Google's feat consists, with its quantum computer, in achieving what no current computer can reproduce. Google thus becomes the first to cross this fictitious line and control the computational process of a quantum computer that is billions of times more powerful than our current computers.
In addition, a few other quantum computers exist in research labs around the world, but none have so far managed to control their processes in order to derive such computing power. And it is quite astonishing that privately owned companies like Google and IBM are ahead of university research labs, indicating the enormous advantage that the first to own and control this technology will be able to take advantage of it.
The Quantum Difference
The modern world relies on conventional computers. They enable us to launch satellites, go to Mars, support the Internet, e-commerce, crypto currencies, robots on Mars, smart cells, drones, etc.
"But many of the greatest mysteries and potentially the greatest opportunities are beyond the reach of conventional computers. To continue the pace of progress, we need to augment the traditional approach with a new platform that would have new rules. It's the quantum computer! "according to Stefán Filipp, quantum scientist at IBM Research.
Conventional computers are based on the binary system where information is processed and stored in bits - values 0 or 1. The value of the bit is stored in a transistor or equivalent which is the basis of conventional computers. Quantum computers instead use qubits that are placed on a chip in absolute cold and can take several values between 0 and 1, allowing them to store different types of information.
Their operation is entirely different and requires material properties that are only found at extreme temperatures near absolute zero (15 miles kelvin, almost 200 times colder than the depths of space). This requires unusual cooling and a high-powered electrical installation. The algorithms used in these computers are also very different from the binary algorithms of conventional computers.
For a good introduction to quantum computing: scientificamerican.com
A risk to cybersecurity
In an article in Futura-Sciences on the risks of cybersecurity, "Encryption is today the backbone of all cyber defence systems. Whether protecting personal data and communications or securing highly sensitive networks, the principle is based on the idea that it would take the most powerful supercomputer an immeasurable amount of time to break encryption algorithms.
However, this secure construction could collapse with the advent of quantum computers. Their main advantage is that they promise an exponential leap in processing power. In addition, they could break the best encryption available. According to the NSA, it would take about 20 years to design new encryption systems. The potential danger is there. Especially since many public and private institutions have to keep their sensitive data for decades.
The author goes on to say that: "By exploiting quantum properties, these computers could do billions of calculations simultaneously. Enough to decipher currently unbreakable codes and solve mathematical puzzles that were previously impossible to solve.
According to Alexandre Blais, it has clearly become a national security issue. This is why superpowers like China, Europe and the United States are investing heavily in quantum research. The Europeans have already set up the OPEN QKD project. This project consists of a secure quantum communication infrastructure to test the new quantum encryption keys that have become necessary. This is to keep our future communications secure. The Chinese also have their own quantum communication network under test.
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has announced that it must move now to codes that will withstand attacks from quantum computers. This transition is extremely costly and extremely difficult. They need to change the way they do things, but they are convinced that it is necessary, Blais adds. »
For the advancement of science
A quantum computer offers an impressive computing capacity compared to conventional computers. In a few months or years, we will see the appearance of a new generation of computers that will revolutionize research. Notably by significantly affecting our ability to discover, create and use all of humanity's knowledge.
Such a computing capability is expected to lead to a multitude of discoveries in chemistry, pharmacology and physics. New materials, elements and drugs are expected to emerge. The quantum computer will also be able to simulate systems of enormous complexity. It could lead to new knowledge about issues that haunt humanity. These include the origin of the universe and the beginnings of life.
This Google event could be as important for the future of humanity as the first flight in 1903 by the Wright brothers. But rest assured, quantum computing has not yet been mastered. It will take another decade or so before it can harness its full potential.
We're not sure exactly what this new science has in store for us. But one thing is certain, the quantum age will change our world forever!