Quantum computing leaps ahead in 2019 with new power and speed
It was a good year for these weird machines.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
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.
Watch this: Quantum computing is the new super supercomputer
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."
Amazon Web Services, the king of cloud computing infrastructure, added a researcher-focused quantum computing service called Braket. The name comes from a notation system, known as bra-ket, that signifies qubit values.
Intel announced a quantum computing controller chip called Horse Ridge designed to shrink and simplify the hardware needed to communicate with quantum processors that house qubits.
Google achieved quantum supremacy, taking 200 seconds to perform on a 53-qubit quantum computing chip a particular task that it calculated would take the fastest supercomputer 10,000 years. Google also said it plans to follow IBM's existing business by making its quantum computers available to outsiders as a cloud-computing service in 2020.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
Take a look at Google's quantum computing technology