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Quantum computing leaps ahead in 2019 with new power and speed

It was a good year for these weird machines.

IBM Q quantum computer close-up

A close-up view of the IBM Q quantum computer. The processor is in the silver-colored cylinder.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Quantum computers are getting a lot more real. No, you won't be playing Call of Duty on one anytime soon. But Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Rigetti Computing and IBM all made important advances in 2019 that could help bring computers governed by the weird laws of atomic-scale physics into your life in other ways.

Google's declaration of quantum supremacy was the most headline-grabbing moment in the field. The achievement -- more limited than the grand term might suggest -- demonstrated that quantum computers could someday tackle computing problems beyond the reach of conventional "classical" computers.

Proving quantum computing progress is crucial. We're still several breakthroughs away from realizing the full vision of quantum computing. Qubits, the tiny stores of data that quantum computers use, need to be improved. So do the finicky control systems used to program and read quantum computer results. Still, today's results help justify tomorrow's research funding to sustain the technology when the flashes of hype inevitably fizzle.

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Quantum computers will live in data centers, not on your desk, when they're commercialized. They'll still be able to improve many aspects of your life, though. Money in your retirement account might grow a little faster and your packages might be delivered a little sooner as quantum computers find new ways to optimize businesses. Your electric-car battery might be a little lighter and new drugs might help you live a little longer after quantum computers unlock new molecular-level designs. Traffic may be a little lighter from better simulations.

But Google's quantum supremacy step was just one of many needed to fulfill quantum computing's promise. 

"We're going to get there in cycles. We're going to have a lot of dark ages in which nothing happens for a long time," said Forrester analyst Brian Hopkins. "One day that new thing will really change the world."

More qubits, more quantum computing services

Among the developments in 2019:

Waiting for quantum computing

Classical computers, which include everything from today's smartwatches to supercomputers that occupy entire buildings, store data as bits that represent either a 1 or a 0. Quantum computers use a different approach called qubits that can represent a combination of 1 and 0 through an idea called superposition.

Ford and Microsoft adapted a quantum computing traffic simulation to run on a classical computer. The result: a traffic routing algorithm that could cut Seattle traffic congestion by 73%.

Ford

The states of multiple qubits can be linked, letting quantum computers explore lots of possible solutions to a problem at once. With each new qubit added, a quantum computer can explore double the number of possible solutions, an exponential increase not possible with classical machines.

Quantum computers, however, are finicky. It's hard to get qubits to remain stable long enough to return useful results. The act of communicating with qubits can perturb them. Engineers hope to add error correction techniques so quantum computers can tackle a much broader range of problems.

Plenty of people are quantum computing skeptics. Even some fans of the technology acknowledge we're years away from high-powered quantum computers. But already, quantum computing is a real business. Samsung, Daimler, Honda, JP Morgan Chase and Barclays are all quantum computing customers. Spending on quantum computers should reach hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2020s, and tens of billions in the 2030s, according to forecasts by Deloitte, a consultancy. China, Europe, the United States and Japan have sunk billions of dollars into investment plans. Ford and Microsoft say traffic simulation technology for quantum computers, adapted to run on classical machines, already is showing utility. 

What will quantum computers do?

Right now quantum computers are used mostly in research. But applications with mainstream results are likely coming. The power of quantum computers is expected to allow for the creation of new materials, chemical processes and medicines by giving insight into the physics of molecules. Quantum computers will also help for greater optimization of financial investments, delivery routes and flights by crunching the numbers in situations with a large number of possible courses of action. 

They'll also be used for cracking today's encryption, an idea spy agencies love, even if you might be concerned about losing your privacy or some snoop getting your password. New cryptography adapted for a quantum computing future is already underway.

Another promising application is artificial intelligence, though that may be years in the future.

"Eventually we'll be able to reinvent machine learning," Forrester's Hopkins said. But it'll take years of steady work in quantum computing beyond the progress of 2019. "The transformative benefits are real and big, but they are still more sci-fi and theory than they are reality."