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Quantum Computing: Current Progress and Future Directions

min read

What is quantum computing, how is it being used, and what are the implications for higher education?

Quantum Computing: Current Progress and Future Directions
Credit: Bartlomiej K. Wroblewski / Shutterstock.com © 2022

The limitations of contemporary supercomputers, as well as the ramifications for academics and institutions worldwide, are drawing attention in the scientific community. For example, researchers may use current technology to perform more complicated simulations, such as those that focus on chemistry and the reactive properties of each element. However, when the intricacy of these interactions increases, they become far more challenging for current supercomputers to manage. Due to the limited processing capability of these devices, finishing these sorts of computations is nearly impossible, which is forcing scientists to choose between speed and precision while doing these studies.

To provide some context for the breadth of these experiments, let's start with the example of modeling a hydrogen atom. With just one proton and only one electron in hydrogen, a researcher could easily do the chemistry by hand or depend on a computer to complete the calculations. However, depending on the number of atoms and whether or not the electrons are entangled, this procedure becomes more difficult. To write out every conceivable result for an element such as thulium, which contains a staggering 69 electrons that are all twisted together, would take upwards of 20 trillion years. Obviously, this is an inordinate amount of time, and standard techniques must be abandoned.

Quantum computers, however, open the door to a whole new world of possibilities. The equations required to simulate chemistry have been known to the scientific community since the 1930s, but building a computer with the power and dependability to carry out these calculations has not been feasible until quite recently. Today's quantum computers provide the speed that researchers need to mimic all aspects of chemistry, allowing them to be significantly more predictive and reducing the need for laboratory tests. Colleges and universities may be able to employ quantum computers to increase the existing knowledge of chemistry. Consider the potential time and cost savings that might be realized if quantum computers are able to eliminate the necessity for laboratory tests during research. Furthermore, since the computational capacity to grasp chemical characteristics did not exist before, this step might result in chemical property advances that were previously unknown to the world.

Although these predictions about quantum computing may seem to be only pipe dreams, they are the next logical steps. Only time will tell the extent of what we will be able to do with this technology.

Quantum Computing Explained

Quantum computers operate by using superposition, interference, and entanglement to perform complex calculations. Instead of using classical bits, quantum computing uses quantum bits, or qubits, which take on quantum properties of probability, where the bit is both zero and one, with coefficients of likelihood, until measured, in which their discrete value is determined. More importantly, qubits are made up of quantum particles and are subject to quantum entanglement, which allows for computing using coupled probabilities. With these phenomena, quantum computing opens the field of special quantum algorithms development to solve new problems, ranging from cryptography, to search engines, to turbulent fluid dynamics, and all the way to directly simulating quantum mechanics, allowing for the development of new pharmaceutical drugs.

In traditional classical computing, our information takes the form of classical information, with bits taking the value of either zero or one, carefully. Quantum mechanics, however, is not so simple: a value can be both a zero and a one in a probabilistic, unknown state until measured. This state contains a coefficient for the likelihood of being zero and a coefficient for the likelihood of being one. Once the qubit is observed, the value discreetly becomes either a zero or a one. In practice, these qubits take the form of some subatomic particles that exhibit the probabilistic properties of quantum mechanics, such as an electron or photon. Furthermore, several particles can become coupled in probabilistic outcomes in a phenomenon called quantum entanglement, in which the outcome of the whole is no longer simply dependent on the outcome of independent parts.

For example, a classical two-bit system contains four states: 00, 01, 10, and 11. The specific state of the four states can be defined using only two values: the two bits that define it. Again, quantum mechanics is not so simple. A two-qubit quantum entangled system can have four states, just like the classical system. The interesting emergent phenomenon, however, is that all four states exist probabilistically, at the same time, requiring four new coefficients, instead of just the independent coefficients, in order to represent this system. Going further, for N qubits, 2N coefficients are required to be specified, so to simulate just 300 entangled qubits, the number of coefficients would be greater than that of the number of atoms in the known universe.

Because qubits are of probabilistic values, quantum computers do not run traditional algorithms. Quantum computers require new algorithms to be developed specifically for quantum computing. Referred to as quantum algorithms, these algorithms are designed in a fashion similar to that of circuit diagrams, in which data is computed step-by-step using quantum logic gates. These algorithms are extremely difficult to build, with the biggest challenge being that the outcome of the algorithm has to be deterministic, as opposed to undefined and probabilistic. This has created a new field of computer science, with careers opening in the near future for quantum algorithms engineers.

Quantum Computing in Practice

Many businesses are already using quantum computing. For example, IBM is working with Mercedes-Benz, ExxonMobil, CERN, and Mitsubishi Chemical to implement quantum computing into their products and services:

  • Mercedes-Benz is exploring quantum computing to create better batteries for its electric cars. The company is hoping to shape the future of modernized electrically powered vehicles and make an impact on the environment by implementing quantum computing into its products in an effort to be carbon neutral by 2039. Simulating what happens inside batteries is extremely difficult, even with the most advanced computers today. However, using quantum computing technology, Mercedes-Benz can more accurately simulate the chemical reactions in car batteries.Footnote1
  • ExxonMobil is using quantum algorithms to more easily discover the most efficient routes to ship clean-burning fuel across the world. Without quantum computing, calculating all of the routing combinations and finding the most efficient one would be nearly impossible.Footnote2
  • The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, is trying to discover the secrets of the universe. Using quantum computing, CERN can find algorithms that pinpoint the complex events of the universe in a more efficient way. For example, quantum computing can help CERN figure out patterns in the data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).Footnote3
  • Teams at Mitsubishi Chemical and Keio University are studying a critical chemical step in lithium-oxygen batteries: lithium superoxide rearrangement. They are using quantum computers "to create accurate simulations of what's happening inside a chemical reaction at a molecular level."Footnote4

Pluses and Minuses

Quantum computing has the potential to radically change the world around us by revolutionizing industries such as finance, pharmaceuticals, AI, and automotive over the next several years. The value of quantum computers comes as a result of the probabilistic manner in which they function. By directly using a probabilistic style of computation instead of simulating it, computer scientists have shown the potential applications in rapid search engines, more accurate weather forecasts, and precise medical applications. Additionally, representing the original motivation for the development of quantum computing, quantum computers are extremely useful in directly simulating quantum mechanics. Perhaps the main appeal of quantum computing is that it solves problems faster, making it a natural fit for applications that need to process huge amounts of data (e.g., aerospace logistics, drug manufacturing, molecular research, or other fields using canonical processes at an atomic level).

Yet creating a powerful quantum computer is not an easy task and involves many downsides. The sensitivity of the quantum computing system to extreme temperatures is one of the main disadvantages. For the system to function properly, it must be close to absolute zero temperature, which constitutes a major engineering challenge. In addition, the qubit quality is not where it needs to be. After a given number of instructions, qubits produce inaccurate results, and quantum computers lack error correction to fix this issue. With the number of wires or lasers needed to make each qubit, maintaining control is difficult, especially if one is aiming to create a million-qubit chip. Additionally, quantum computing is very expensive: a single qubit could cost up to around $10,000.Footnote5 Finally, standard information systems and encryption approaches would be overwhelmed by the processing power of quantum computers if they are used for malicious purposes. The reliance of these computers on the principles of quantum physics makes them able to decrypt the most secure data (e.g., bank records, government secrets, and Internet/email passwords). Cryptographic experts around the world will need to develop encryption techniques that are resistant to attacks that may be issued by quantum computers.

Implications for Higher Education

The world of education is always looking for new opportunities to grow and prosper. Many higher education institutions have begun extensive research with quantum computing, exploiting the unique properties of quantum physics to usher in a new age of technology including computers capable of currently impossible calculations, ultra-secure quantum networking, and exotic new quantum materials.

  • Researchers at the University of Oxford are interested in quantum research because of its enormous potential in fields such as healthcare, finance, and security. The university is regarded worldwide as a pioneer in the field of quantum science. The University of Oxford and the University of York demonstrated the first working pure state nuclear magnetic resonance quantum computer.
  • Researchers at Harvard University have established a community group—the Harvard Quantum Initiative in Science and Engineering—with the goal of making significant strides in the fields of science and engineering related to quantum computers and their applications. According to the research conducted by the group, the "second quantum revolution" will expand on the first one, which was responsible for the development of global communication, technologies such as GPS avigation, and medical breakthroughs such as magnetic resonance imaging.
  • Researchers at the Department of Physics of the University of Maryland, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Laboratory for Physical Sciences are part of the Joint Quantum Institute, "dedicated to the goals of controlling and exploiting quantum systems."
  • Researchers at MIT have built a quantum computer and are investigating areas such as quantum algorithms and complexity, quantum information theory, measurement and control, and applications and connections.
  • Researchers at the University of California Berkeley Center for Quantum Computation and Information are working on fundamental quantum algorithms, cryptography, information theory, quantum control, and the experimentation of quantum computers and quantum devices.
  • Researchers at the University of Chicago Quantum Exchange are focusing on developing new approaches to understanding and utilizing the laws of quantum mechanics. The CQE encourages collaborations, joint projects, and information exchange among research groups and partner institutions.
  • Researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China are exploring quantum optics and quantum information. Main areas of interest include quantum foundation, free-space and fiber-based quantum communications, superconducting quantum computing, ultra-cold atom quantum simulation, and quantum metrology theories and theories-related concepts.Footnote6

One broad implication for higher education is that quantum computing will open up new careers for the students of tomorrow. In addition, this technology will allow for a precise prediction of the job market growth overall and of the demand for skilled and knowledgeable workers in all fields. In the near future, the power of quantum computing will be unleashed on machine learning. In education, quantum-driven algorithms will make informed decisions on student learning and deficits, just as quantum computing is expected to revolutionize medical triage and diagnosis. Also, quantum computing will power a new era in individual learning, knowledge, and achievement. This will occur through the timely processing of huge amounts of student data, where quantum computers may eventually possess the ability to take control of designing programs that can adapt to students' unique achievements and abilities as well as backfilling specific areas where students might need help. These aspects of quantum computing are essential to achieving the goal of truly personalized learning.

Gaining access to any of the world's relatively few physical quantum computers is possible via the cloud. These computers include the 20+ IBM Quantum System One installations currently in the United States, Germany, and Japan, with more planned in the United States, South Korea, and Canada. Anyone with an internet connection can log in to a quantum computer and become educated on the fundamental of quantum programming. For example, IBM offers a variety of quantum-focused education programs including access to quantum computers, teaching support, summer schools, and hackathons.Footnote7 The IBM Quantum Educators and Researchers programs and Qubit by Qubit's "Introduction to Quantum Computing" are just two examples of the quantum computing resources that are accessible to both educators and students.

Such initiatives are absolutely necessary. Colleges and universities worldwide need to collaborate in order to close the current knowledge gap in quantum education and to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Notes

  1. "Ambition 2039: Our Path to CO₂-Neutrality," Mercedes-Benz Group (website), accessed June 3, 2022; "Envisioning a New Wave in Power," IBM case study (website), accessed June 3, 2022; Edis Osmanbasic, "Eye on Lithium: For Better Batteries, Use Quantum Computers," Engineering.com, May 17, 2022. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. "ExxonMobil Strives to Solve Complex Energy Challenges," IBM case study (website), accessed June 3, 2022. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. "The Quest to Understand What Sews the Universe Together," IBM case study (website), accessed June 3, 2022. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. "In Quantum Pursuit of Game-Changing Power Sources," IBM case study (website), accessed June 3, 2022. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. John Levy, "1 Million Qubit Quantum Computers: Moving beyond the Current "Brute Force" Strategy," SEEQC (website, accessed June 20, 2022). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. For more on the quantum computing work at these higher education institutions and others worldwide, see Matt Swayne, "Top 12 Quantum Computing Universities and Graduate Programs [2022]," The Quantum Insider, April 18, 2022, and Sayantani Sanyal, "10 Universities Unleashing the Best Quantum Computing Research," Analytics Insight, April 15, 2022. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. "What's Next in Quantum Is Frictionless Development," IBM (website) accessed June 25, 2022. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.

Triniti Dungey is a student in the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences at Marshall University.

Yousef Abdelgaber is a student in the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences at Marshall University.

Chase Casto is a student in the Department of Computer and Information Technology at Marshall University.

Josh Mills is a student in the Department of Cyber Forensics and Security at Marshall University.

Yousef Fazea is Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Technology at Marshall University.

© 2022 Triniti Dungey, Yousef Abdelgaber, Chase Casto, Josh Mills, and Yousef Fazea