Big things happen when computers get smaller. Or faster. And quantum computing is about chasing perhaps the biggest performance boost in the history of technology. The basic idea is to smash some barriers that limit the speed of existing computers by harnessing the counterintuitive physics of subatomic scales.

If the tech industry pulls off that, ahem, quantum leap, you wont be getting a quantum computer for your pocket. Dont start saving for an iPhone Q. We could, however, see significant improvements in many areas of science and technology, such as longer-lasting batteries for electric cars or advances in chemistry that reshape industries or enable new medical treatments. Quantum computers wont be able to do everything faster than conventional computers, but on some tricky problems they have advantages that would enable astounding progress.

Its not productive (or polite) to ask people working on quantum computing when exactly those dreamy applications will become real. The only thing for sure is that they are still many years away. Prototype quantum computing hardware is still embryonic. But powerfuland, for tech companies, profit-increasingcomputers powered by quantum physics have recently started to feel less hypothetical.

The cooling and support structure for one of IBM’s quantum computing chips (the tiny black square at the bottom of the image).

Amy Lombard

Thats because Google, IBM, and others have decided its time to invest heavily in the technology, which, in turn, has helped quantum computing earn a bullet point on the corporate strategy PowerPoint slides of big companies in areas such as finance, like JPMorgan, and aerospace, like Airbus. In 2017, venture investors plowed $241 million into startups working on quantum computing hardware or software worldwide, according to CB Insights. Thats triple the amount in the previous year.

Like the befuddling math underpinning quantum computing, some of the expectations building around this still-impractical technology can make you lightheaded. If you squint out the window of a flight into SFO right now, you can see a haze of quantum hype drifting over Silicon Valley. But the enormous potential of quantum computing is undeniable, and the hardware needed to harness it is advancing fast. If there were ever a perfect time to bend your brain around quantum computing, its now. Say Schrodingers superposition three times fast, and we can dive in.

The prehistory of quantum computing begins early in the 20th century, when physicists began to sense they had lost their grip on reality.

First, accepted explanations of the subatomic world turned out to be incomplete. Electrons and other particles didnt just neatly carom around like Newtonian billiard balls, for example. Sometimes they acted like waves instead. Quantum mechanics emerged to explain such quirks, but introduced troubling questions of its own. To take just one brow-wrinkling example, this new math implied that physical properties of the subatomic world, like the position of an electron, didnt really exist until they were observed.

Physicist Paul Benioff suggests quantum mechanics could be used for computation.

Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, at Caltech, coins the term quantum computer.

Physicist David Deutsch, at Oxford, maps out how a quantum computer would operate, a blueprint that underpins the nascent industry of today.

Mathematician Peter Shor, at Bell Labs, writes an algorithm that could tap a quantum computers power to break widely used forms of encryption.

D-Wave, a Canadian startup, announces a quantum computing chip it says can solve Sudoku puzzles, triggering years of debate over whether the companys technology really works.

Google teams up with NASA to fund a lab to try out D-Waves hardware.

Google hires the professor behind some of the best quantum computer hardware yet to lead its new quantum hardware lab.

IBM puts some of its prototype quantum processors on the internet for anyone to experiment with, saying programmers need to get ready to write quantum code.

Startup Rigetti opens its own quantum computer fabrication facility to build prototype hardware and compete with Google and IBM.

If you find that baffling, youre in good company. A year before winning a Nobel for his contributions to quantum theory, Caltechs Richard Feynman remarked that nobody understands quantum mechanics. The way we experience the world just isnt compatible. But some people grasped it well enough to redefine our understanding of the universe. And in the 1980s a few of themincluding Feynmanbegan to wonder if quantum phenomena like subatomic particles’ dont look and I dont exist trick could be used to process information. The basic theory or blueprint for quantum computers that took shape in the 80s and 90s still guides Google and others working on the technology.

Before we belly flop into the murky shallows of quantum computing 0.101, we should refresh our understanding of regular old computers. As you know, smartwatches, iPhones, and the worlds fastest supercomputer all basically do the same thing: they perform calculations by encoding information as digital bits, aka 0s and 1s. A computer might flip the voltage in a circuit on and off to represent 1s and 0s for example.

Quantum computers do calculations using bits, too. After all, we want them to plug into our existing data and computers. But quantum bits, or qubits, have unique and powerful properties that allow a group of them to do much more than an equivalent number of conventional bits.

Qubits can be built in various ways, but they all represent digital 0s and 1s using the quantum properties of something that can be controlled electronically. Popular examplesat least among a very select slice of humanityinclude superconducting circuits, or individual atoms levitated inside electromagnetic fields. The magic power of quantum computing is that this arrangement lets qubits do more than just flip between 0 and 1. Treat them right and they can flip into a mysterious extra mode called a superposition.

The looped cables connect the chip at the bottom of the structure to its control system.

Amy Lombard

You may have heard that a qubit in superposition is both 0 and 1 at the same time. Thats not quite true and also not quite falsetheres just no equivalent in Homo sapiens humdrum classical reality. If you have a yearning to truly grok it, you must make a mathematical odyssey WIRED cannot equip you for. But in the simplified and dare we say perfect world of this explainer, the important thing to know is that the math of a superposition describes the probability of discovering either a 0 or 1 when a qubit is read outan operation that crashes it out of a quantum superposition into classical reality. A quantum computer can use a collection of qubits in superpositions to play with different possible paths through a calculation. If done correctly, the pointers to incorrect paths cancel out, leaving the correct answer when the qubits are read out as 0s and 1s.

A device that uses quantum mechanical effects to represent 0s and 1s of digital data, similar to the bits in a conventional computer.

It’s the trick that makes quantum computers tick, and makes qubits more powerful than ordinary bits. A superposition is in an intuition-defying mathematical combination of both 0 and 1. Quantum algorithms can use a group of qubits in a superposition to shortcut through calculations.

A quantum effect so unintuitive that Einstein dubbed it spooky action at a distance. When two qubits in a superposition are entangled, certain operations on one have instant effects on the other, a process that helps quantum algorithms be more powerful than conventional ones.

The holy grail of quantum computinga measure of how much faster a quantum computer could crack a problem than a conventional computer could. Quantum computers arent well-suited to all kinds of problems, but for some they offer an exponential speedup, meaning their advantage over a conventional computer grows explosively with the size of the input problem.

For some problems that are very time consuming for conventional computers, this allows a quantum computer to find a solution in far fewer steps than a conventional computer would need. Grovers algorithm, a famous quantum search algorithm, could find you in a phone book with 100 million names with just 10,000 operations. A classical search algorithm would require 50 million operations, on average, to spool through all the listings and find you. For Grovers and some other quantum algorithms, the bigger the initial problemor phonebookthe further behind a conventional computer is left in the digital dust.

The reason we dont have useful quantum computers today is that qubits are extremely finicky. The quantum effects they must control are very delicate, and stray heat or noise can flip 0s and 1s, or wipe out a crucial superposition. Qubits have to be carefully shielded, and operated at very cold temperatures, sometimes only fractions of a degree above absolute zero. Most plans for quantum computing depend on using a sizable chunk of a quantum processors power to correct its own errors, caused by misfiring qubits.

Recent excitement about quantum computing stems from progress in making qubits less flaky. Thats giving researchers the confidence to start bundling the devices into larger groups. Startup Rigetti Computing recently announced it has built a processor with 128 qubits made with aluminum circuits that are super-cooled to make them superconducting. Google and IBM have announced their own chips with 72 and 50 qubits, respectively. Thats still far fewer than would be needed to do useful work with a quantum computerit would probably require at least thousandsbut as recently as 2016 those companies best chips had qubits only in the single digits. After tantalizing computer scientists for 30 years, practical quantum computing may not exactly be close, but it has begun to feel a lot closer.

Some large companies and governments have started treating quantum computing research like a raceperhaps fittingly its one where both the distance to the finish line and the prize for getting there are unknown.

Google, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft have all expanded their teams working on the technology, with a growing swarm of startups such as Rigetti in hot pursuit. China and the European Union have each launched new programs measured in the billions of dollars to stimulate quantum R&D. And in the US, the Trump White House has created a new committee to coordinate government work on quantum information science. Several bills were introduced to Congress in 2018 proposing new funding for quantum research, totalling upwards of $1.3 billion. Its not quite clear what the first killer apps of quantum computing will be, or when they will appear. But theres a sense that whoever is first make these machines useful will gain big economic and national security advantages.

Copper structures conduct heat well and connect the apparatus to its cooling system.

Amy Lombard

Back in the world of right now, though, quantum processors are too simple to do practical work. Google is working to stage a demonstration known as quantum supremacy, in which a quantum processor would solve a carefully designed math problem beyond existing supercomputers. But that would be an historic scientific milestone, not proof quantum computing is ready to do real work.

As quantum computer prototypes get larger, the first practical use for them will probably be for chemistry simulations. Computer models of molecules and atoms are vital to the hunt for new drugs or materials. Yet conventional computers cant accurately simulate the behavior of atoms and electrons during chemical reactions. Why? Because that behavior is driven by quantum mechanics, the full complexity of which is too great for conventional machines. Daimler and Volkswagen have both started investigating quantum computing as a way to improve battery chemistry for electric vehicles. Microsoft says other uses could include designing new catalysts to make industrial processes less energy intensive, or even to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to mitigate climate change.

Quantum computers would also be a natural fit for code-breaking. Weve known since the 90s that they could zip through the math underpinning the encryption that secures online banking, flirting, and shopping. Quantum processors would need to be much more advanced to do this, but governments and companies are taking the threat seriously. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is in the process of evaluating new encryption systems that could be rolled out to quantum-proof the internet.

When cooled to operating temperature, the whole assembly is hidden inside this white insulated casing.

Amy Lombard

Tech companies such as Google are also betting that quantum computers can make artificial intelligence more powerful. Thats further in the future and less well mapped out than chemistry or code-breaking applications, but researchers argue they can figure out the details down the line as they play around with larger and larger quantum processors. One hope is that quantum computers could help machine-learning algorithms pick up complex tasks using many fewer than the millions of examples typically used to train AI systems today.

Despite all the superposition-like uncertainty about when the quantum computing era will really begin, big tech companies argue that programmers need to get ready now. Google, IBM, and Microsoft have all released open source tools to help coders familiarize themselves with writing programs for quantum hardware. IBM has even begun to offer online access to some of its quantum processors, so anyone can experiment with them. Long term, the big computing companies see themselves making money by charging corporations to access data centers packed with supercooled quantum processors.

Whats in it for the rest of us? Despite some definite drawbacks, the age of conventional computers has helped make life safer, richer, and more convenientmany of us are never more than five seconds away from a kitten video. The era of quantum computers should have similarly broad reaching, beneficial, and impossible to predict consequences. Bring on the qubits.

The Quantum Computing Factory Thats Taking on Google and IBMPeek inside the ultra-clean workshop of Rigetti Computing, a startup packed with PhDs wearing what look like space suits and gleaming steampunk-style machines studded with bolts. In a facility across the San Francisco Bay from Silicon Valley, Rigetti is building its own quantum processors, using similar technology to that used by IBM and Google.

Why JP Morgan, Daimler Are Testing Quantum Computers That Arent Useful YetWall Street has plenty of quantsmath wizards who hunt profits using equations. Now JP Morgan has quantum quants, a small team collaborating with IBM to figure out how to use the power of quantum algorithms to more accurately model financial risk. Useful quantum computers are still years away, but the bank and other big corporations say that the potential payoffs are so large that they need to seriously investigate quantum computing today.

The Era of Quantum Computing is Here. Outlook: CloudyCompanies working on quantum computer hardware like to say that the field has transitioned from the exploration and uncertainty of science into the more predictable realm of engineering. Yet while hardware has improved markedly in recent years, and investment is surging, there are still open scientific questions about the physics underlying quantum computing.

Quantum Computing Will Create Jobs. But Which Ones?You cant create a new industry without people to staff the jobs it creates. A Congressional bill called the National Quantum Initiative seeks to have the US government invest in training the next generation of quantum computer technicians, designers, and entrepreneurs.

Job One For Quantum Computers: Boost Artificial IntelligenceArtificial intelligence and quantum computing are two of Silicon Valleys favorite buzzwords. If they can be successfully combined, machines will get a lot smarter.

Loopholes and the Anti-Realism Of the Quantum WorldEven people who can follow the math of quantum mechanics find its implications for reality perplexing. This book excerpt explains why quantum physics undermines our understanding of reality with nary an equation in sight.

Quantum Computing is the Next Security Big Security RiskIn 1994, mathematician Peter Shor wrote an algorithm that would allow a quantum computer to pierce the encryption that today underpins online shopping and other digital. As quantum computers get closer to reality, congressman Will Hurd (R-Texas) argues the US needs to lead a global effort to deploy new forms of quantum-resistant encryption.

This guide was last updated on August 21, 2018.

Enjoyed this deep dive? Check out more WIRED Guides.

See original here:

What Is Quantum Computing? The Complete WIRED Guide | WIRED

- Quantum computing could change everything, and IBM is ... - May 15th, 2019
- Quantum Computing - Intel - April 29th, 2019
- IBM expands universities in its quantum computing research ... - April 25th, 2019
- Quantum computing is a marathon not a sprint | VentureBeat - April 22nd, 2019
- The CIO's Guide to Quantum Computing - Smarter With Gartner - April 19th, 2019
- This Startup Just Raised $21 Million To Bring Quantum ... - April 18th, 2019
- What is Quantum Computing ? Top 18 Quantum Computing ... - April 6th, 2019
- The promise of quantum computing - businessinsider.com - March 27th, 2019
- Quantum computing is coming: Heres why we need to get our ... - March 23rd, 2019
- Quantum computing will break your encryption in a few ... - March 21st, 2019
- Microsoft has formed a coalition to promote quantum computing ... - March 19th, 2019
- Quantum computing for everyone | Michael Nielsen - March 12th, 2019
- Ask a Techspert: What is quantum computing? - blog.google - March 6th, 2019
- IBM hits quantum computing milestone, may see 'Quantum ... - March 6th, 2019
- Its Time You Learned About Quantum Computing | WIRED - March 6th, 2019
- Microsofts quantum computing network takes a giant leap ... - March 2nd, 2019
- When Will Quantum Computing Have Real Commercial Value ... - February 25th, 2019
- The Case Against Quantum Computing - IEEE Spectrum - February 22nd, 2019
- How Does Quantum Computing Work? - ExtremeTech - January 31st, 2019
- Quantum technology - Wikipedia - January 23rd, 2019
- CES 2019: IBM's Q System One Is the Rock Star Quantum ... - January 13th, 2019
- Quantum Computing | The MIT Press - January 11th, 2019
- IBM thinks outside of the lab, puts quantum computer in a box - January 11th, 2019
- IBM unveils its first commercial quantum computer - January 9th, 2019
- A new type of quantum computer has smashed every record ... - December 21st, 2018
- China bet big on quantum computing. Now the US races to ... - October 26th, 2018
- US takes first step toward a quantum computing workforce ... - September 17th, 2018
- China bet big on quantum computing. Now the ... - money.cnn.com - September 17th, 2018
- The reality of quantum computing could be just three years ... - September 12th, 2018
- The quantum computing race the US cant afford to lose - September 3rd, 2018
- Quantum Computing | USRA - August 30th, 2018
- Quantum Computing Market Research Report- Forecast 2022 | MRFR - August 1st, 2018
- Two Quantum Computing Bills Are Coming To Congress - July 5th, 2018
- Senate bills would make quantum computing a priority - June 10th, 2018
- What is quantum computing? - Definition from WhatIs.com - February 5th, 2018
- The Era of Quantum Computing Is Here. Outlook: Cloudy ... - January 26th, 2018
- IBM puts its quantum computer to work in relaxing, nerdy ASMR ... - January 8th, 2018
- Quantum computing is going to change the world. Here's what ... - January 8th, 2018
- Is Quantum Computing an Existential Threat to Blockchain ... - December 25th, 2017
- What is Quantum Computing? | SAP News Center - December 23rd, 2017
- Quantum Computing Explained | What is Quantum Computing? - December 21st, 2017
- New silicon structure opens the gate to quantum computers - December 14th, 2017
- Microsoft offers developers a preview of its quantum ... - December 12th, 2017
- Quantum Computing Is the Next Big Security Risk | WIRED - December 8th, 2017
- Yale Professors Race Google and IBM to the First Quantum ... - November 16th, 2017
- IBM's processor pushes quantum computing ... - engadget.com - November 16th, 2017
- Quantum computing - news.microsoft.com - November 1st, 2017
- Intel Takes First Steps To Universal Quantum Computing - October 13th, 2017
- Qudits: The Real Future of Quantum Computing? - IEEE Spectrum - October 13th, 2017
- quantum computing - engadget.com - October 13th, 2017
- Quantum Computing | Intel Newsroom - October 13th, 2017
- What will you actually use quantum computing for? | ZDNet - October 11th, 2017
- Here's what quantum computing is and why it matters - October 6th, 2017
- Microsoft just upped its multi-million bet on quantum computing - ZDNet - September 7th, 2017
- Microsoft's Aussie quantum computing lab set to scale up next-gen ... - ARNnet - September 7th, 2017
- An Entirely New Type of Quantum Computing Has Just Been Invented - Futurism - September 7th, 2017
- Quantum computing event explores the implications for business - Cambridge Network - August 30th, 2017
- Quantum Computing Is Coming at Us Fast, So Here's Everything You Need to Know - ScienceAlert - August 27th, 2017
- How quantum mechanics can change computing - San Francisco ... - San Francisco Chronicle - August 25th, 2017
- Commonwealth Bank investing in Australia's first quantum computer company - Which-50 (blog) - August 25th, 2017
- How quantum mechanics can change computing - The Conversation US - August 23rd, 2017
- Introducing Australia's first quantum computing hardware company - Computerworld Australia - August 23rd, 2017
- IEEE Approves Standards Project for Quantum Computing ... - insideHPC - August 23rd, 2017
- $495.3 Million Quantum Computing Market 2017 by Revenue Source, Application, Industry, and Geography - Global ... - PR Newswire (press release) - August 18th, 2017
- Physicists Have Made Exotic Quantum States From Light - Futurism - August 16th, 2017
- Machine learning tackles quantum error correction - Phys.Org - August 15th, 2017
- Quantum Internet Is 13 Years Away. Wait, What's Quantum Internet? - WIRED - August 15th, 2017
- Blind quantum computing for everyone - Phys.org - Phys.Org - August 12th, 2017
- Quantum Computing Is Real, and D-Wave Just Open ... - WIRED - August 12th, 2017
- Quantum Computing Market Worth 495.3 Million USD by 2023 | 08 ... - Markets Insider - August 10th, 2017
- China uses a quantum satellite to transmit potentially unhackable data - CNBC - August 10th, 2017
- Physicists Take Big Step Towards Quantum Computing and ... - Universe Today - August 1st, 2017
- Why you might trust a quantum computer with secretseven over ... - Phys.Org - July 12th, 2017
- Quantum-computer node uses two different ion species - physicsworld.com - July 10th, 2017
- Quantum Computers vs Bitcoin How Worried Should We Be? - The Merkle - July 10th, 2017
- Quantum cheques could be a forgery-free way to move money - New Scientist - July 10th, 2017
- Technique for measuring and controlling electron state is a ... - UCLA Newsroom - July 9th, 2017
- Quantum Computers Made Even More Powerful with New microchip generating 'Qudits' - TrendinTech - July 8th, 2017
- Quantum Computing Record Broken - Wall Street Pit - July 8th, 2017
- Alkermes and IBM's quantum computing. Who'll be the big winner? Malcolm Berko - Durham Herald Sun - July 6th, 2017

## Recent Comments