Despite the strides we’ve made in computer technology over the last 50 years, there are many unsolved problems that standard computers cannot handle. Many in the industry think that quantum computing might solve those problems.
Computers used to be so large they took up an entire room all to themselves. Today, that same technology fits in the pocket of our trousers. Our smart phones are basically the same as the huge machines made decades ago, using the same technology. It’s time to rethink how we build, and therefore how we use, computers. At the very least, it’s time to build quantum computers. Rather than replace classic computers, quantum computers would be used for different tasks, to solve complex problems that standard computers are not designed to handle.
Classic computers are limited to doing only one task at a time. So a more complex problem takes longer to solve. We are in an age of “big data.” There is more information available to more people and we need larger computing transistors to process and store all of that information. But larger computers alone cannot solve the more complex, intractable problems we face today. That is because classic computers can only handle one problem at a time, so a complex problem takes much longer for a classic computer to solve. Quantum computers are predicted to solve complex, intractable problems while consuming less energy. But how? By using qubits.
Qubits, or quantum bits
Qubits, or quantum bits, are the complex, atomic and subatomic particles. They are often illustrated as being able to function at any point on a sphere, in contrast to classic computer bits, which function in a severely more limited capacity. Because of this multi-state function, qubits can store an exponential amount of information compared to the computers we use today. Using this technology, quantum computers will be a million or more times faster that anything that came before. It sounds unbelievable, and that’s because quantum computing is still unbelievably complex.
Consequently, there is a lot of competition within the computer industry to make computers more energy efficient. It has been estimated that by 2040, we will not be able to make enough electricity to power all the machines (computers) in the world. This is why industry leaders are racing to create quantum computers available commercially.
All this being said, it is difficult to predict just how much quantum computers will change our daily lives. Surely, there will be questions and answers which we haven’t even conceived of yet. Comparatively, if you consider how computers have brought on a modern industrial revolution using the basic 0 or 1 bit option, you can begin to imagine the endless possibilities of change brought on by qubits performing millions of calculations simultaneously.
What we can predict is the huge impact quantum computing will have on every industry and in every home. The way we do business, the way we care for the sick, how we safeguard our personal data, travel, entertainment, education, everything we do today will be reinvented. And it is by no coincidence that the world’s most influential companies are working with governments to invest in quantum computing technology. They are all expecting that quantum computing will solve the world’s problems and create opportunities that aren’t possible today.
When will quantum computing have its breakthrough?
It’s always the same with new technologies and expectation management. First we fall in love with them, then we feel disheartened, and finally we settle for less than originally expected. In 1954, Texas Instruments praised their new transistors as electronic brains, which would outperform human brains soon. In 2000, Bill Clinton announced that the Human Genome project would heal cancer, the scourge of our times. And so it is now with quantum computing. The expectations are high.
The journalists have begun to understand how it works and what it could be good for. High-tech IT giants and even big car manufacturers like us (that is, Volkswagen) are heavily investing in this technology to build prototypes. You get the feeling that the industry is on the verge of leveraging the potential of quantum computing. Is the quantum revolution beginning right now?
Not everyone really believes that quantum computing will solve real-world problems though. Even experts and well-respected researchers in the field of quantum computing have to admit that the hype has gotten out of control, warning that quantum computing may need decades until yielding commercial value.
The well-known theoretical physicist Mikhail Dyakonov, for example, who has spent several years of his life in Saint Petersburg and is now lecturing at the University of Montpellier in France doubts that general-purpose quantum computers will not be built anytime in the foreseeable future. After publishing his statement, there were controversial discussions. It turned out, however, that even the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine came to the same conclusion when they prepared an independent assessment of the feasibility and implications of creating a functional quantum computer which is capable of solving real-world problems. They had the task to estimate the required time and resources and give an assessment of the probability to succeed. This consortium also consisted of well-respected experts such John Martinis (from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who heads Google’s quantum-hardware efforts), David Awschalom (from the University of Chicago, who formerly directed the Center for Spintronics and Quantum Computation at UCSB) and Umesh Vazirani (from the University of California, Berkeley, who codirects the Berkeley Quantum Information and Computation Center).
They came to the conclusion that “it is highly unexpected” that anyone will be able to construct a quantum computer, which could compromise public-key cryptosystems within the next decade. This could really happen when quantum computing would go productive. Nevertheless, until quantum computers will really go live, there will only be so-called “noisy intermediate-scale quantum computers”, which are not suitable of running the needed algorithms for this. Frankly speaking, the committee says that “there are at present no known algorithms/applications that could make effective use of this class of machine”. So, the next decade is safe for us.
But if not within the next decade, how long will it take? The committee was not willing to commit itself to any estimate. So the pretty simple answer is: Nobody really knows.
The people who do active research in this realm, however, are overwhelmed by recent progress they’ve made, for example, on building proof-of-concept devices. They are much more optimistic in terms of the technical challenges and the progress they can make within the next decade. Maybe, the truth is in the middle. Nevertheless, the Automotive industry will have much bigger challenges within the next 5 to 10 years.
Quantum supremacy: Google’s first step towards quantum computing
And then happened Google’s breakthrough in quantum computing, which is the first example of quantum supremacy. Quantum supremacy itself is a simple concept: it means performing a computation that could not be performed on a classical computer.
It’s very important to understand exactly what this means. Google performed a computation in a few minutes (3 minutes, 20 seconds to be precise) that would have taken more than 10,000 years on the most powerful computers we currently have. This is considered a major breakthrough.
It’s important to consider what this achievement does not mean. It does not mean that cryptography is broken, or that we can achieve general artificial intelligence, or anything of the sort. This specific computation is meaningless, except perhaps as a random number generator that obeys an odd distribution. To do meaningful computation on a quantum computer, we’ll need to develop quantum error correction. Error correction is well understood for classical computers; error correction for quantum computers isn’t.
Quantum computing is useful to speed up a relatively small number of very difficult computational problems that can’t be solved on classical computers. Most of what we do on our computers—fancy graphics, email, databases, building websites, data analysis, digital signal processing—can’t be done with quantum computing. I can tell you where those quantum computers will be: they will live in the cloud. Google, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft will each have one; a few more will be scattered around at intelligence agencies and other organizations with three-letter names. The total market might end up being a few dozen—but because of the cloud, that will be all we need.
Google’s achievement is important because it is what it says it is: a computation that would have taken more than 10,000 years on the fastest modern supercomputer has been done in a few minutes. That’s a huge step forward; it proves that we’re on the right track. However, utility is all a matter of perspective. It’s easy to dismiss a 53-qubit quantum machine from the perspective of a laptop with 64 GB of RAM and a terabyte disk, but that’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope and complaining about how small everything is. That’s not how the industry progresses. And even though the computation Google has performed doesn’t have any applications, I wouldn’t be surprised if we can find useful computations that can be done on our current quantum computers, with 50 to 100 qubits.
Scaling quantum computing isn’t trivial. But the most important problem, getting these things to work in the first place, has been solved.
Applications for the Automotive industry
Constant communication, processing and analysis between many vehicles at the same time requires huge processing power. The quantity of processed data goes beyond everything carmakers know today. Therefore, they are currently investing in capabilities. Volkswagen for example recently announced to partner with Google for quantum computing – to optimize traffic flows, develop AI and explore battery materials.
This year, with the aid of quantum computers, Volkswagen will enabled traffic to flow more smoothly in the streets of Lisbon during the WebSummit. To achieve this, nine MAN buses owned by the municipal transport company CARRIS have been equipped with a system developed by Volkswagen. Virtually in real time, the system calculates the quickest individual route for each of the participating buses and gives the drivers navigation recommendations by means of an app. This enabled the buses, which shuttled between the most important points in the city and had the highest passenger volume, to avoid congestion at an early stage and delivered thousands of people to their destination more quickly. Volkswagen also used the project to demonstrate, for the first time in the world, a practical application possibility for quantum computers.
This is also the reason why this technology is very interesting for fleet management applications which are developed by Volkswagen commercial vehicles.
Quantum algorithms can be used for diverse objectives in the Automotive industry. The Volkswagen specialists are developing both solutions for individual road users (single vehicles) and control possibilities for urban traffic planning as proven with the showcase in Lisbon. In addition to navigation tips to reduce travel time and avoid congestion, it would be conceivable to send vehicles information calculated in real time about available e-charging stations or free parking spaces. It is also imaginable to integrate overarching factors such as urban traffic management systems, public transport, or weather conditions.
Nobody really knows how mature quantum computing is and how much time it will take to bring this technology to production. Nevertheless, Google was able to push this technology one step further. When will quantum computing have real commercial value for the automotive industry? It's hard to answer this question but the potential of quantum computing for the Automotive industry is huge.