|Jack Ganssle's Blog
This is Jack's outlet for thoughts about designing and programming embedded systems. It's a complement to my bi-weekly newsletter The Embedded Muse. Contact me at email@example.com. I'm an old-timer engineer who still finds the field endlessly fascinating (bio).
|For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.
Will We Ever Get Quantum Computers?
March 12, 2019
In the most recent issue of IEEE Spectrum, Mikhail Dyakonov makes a pretty compelling argument that quantum computing (QC) isn't going to fly anytime soon. Now, I'm no expert on QC, and there sure is a lot of money being thrown at the problem by some very smart people, but having watched from the sidelines QC seems a lot like fusion research. Every year more claims are made, more venture capital gets burned, but we don't seem to get closer to useful systems.
Consider D-Wave Systems. They've been trying to build a QC for twenty years, and indeed do have products more or less on the market, including, it's claimed, one of 1024 q-bits. But there's a lot of controversy about whether their machines are either quantum computers at all, or if they offer any speedup over classical machines. One would think that if a 1K q-bit machine really did work the press would be all abuzz, and we'd be hearing constantly of new incredible results. Instead, the machines seem to disappear into research labs.
Mr. Duakonov notes that optimistic people expect useful QCs in the next 5-10 years; those less sanguine expect 20-30 years, a prediction that hasn't changed in two decades. He thinks a window of many decades to never is more realistic. Experts think that a useful machine, one that can do the sort of calculations your laptop is capable of, will require between 1000 and 100,000 q-bits. To me, this level of uncertainty suggests that there is a profound lack of knowledge about how these machines will work and what they will be able to do.
According to the author, a 1000 q-bit machine can be in 21000 states (a classical machine with N transistors can be in only 2N states), which is about 10300, or more than the number of sub-atomic particles in the universe. At 100,000 q-bits we're talking 1030,000, a mind-boggling number.
Because of noise, expect errors. Some theorize that those errors can be eliminated by adding q-bits, on the order of 1000 to 100,000 additional per q-bit. So a useful machine will need at least millions, or perhaps many orders of magnitude more, of these squirrelly microdots that are tamed only by keeping them at 10 millikelvin.
A related article in Spectrum mentions a committee formed of prestigious researchers tasked with assessing the probability of success with QC concluded that:
"[I]t is highly unexpected" that anyone will be able to build a quantum computer that could compromise public-key cryptosystems (a task that quantum computers are, in theory, especially suitable for tackling) in the coming decade. And while less-capable "noisy intermediate-scale quantum computers" will be built within that time frame, "there are at present no known algorithms/applications that could make effective use of this class of machine," the committee says."
I don't have a dog in this fight, but am relieved that useful QC seems to be no closer than The Distant Shore (to quote Jan de Hartog, one of my favorite writers). If it were feasible to easily break encryption schemes banking and other systems could collapse. I imagine Blockchain would fail as hash algorithms became reversable. The resulting disruption would not be healthy for our society.
On the other hand, Bruce Schneier's article in the March issue of IEEE Computing Edge suggests that QC won't break all forms of encryption, though he does think a lot of our current infrastructure will be vulnerable. The moral: if and when QC becomes practical, expect chaos.
I was once afraid of quantum computing, as it involves mechanisms that I'll never understand. But then I realized those machines will have an API. Just as one doesn't need to know how a computer works to program in Python, we'll be insulated from the quantum horrors by layers of abstraction.
Feel free to email me with comments.
Back to Jack's blog index page.
If you'd like to post a comment without logging in, click in the "Name" box under "Or sign up with Disqus" and click on "I'd rather post as a guest."
Recent blog postings:
- A Canticle for Leibowitz - One of my favorite books.
- A 72123 beats per minute heart rate - Is it possible?
- Networking Did Not Start With The IoT! - Despite what the marketing folks claim
- In-Circuit Emulators - Does anyone remember ICEs?
- My GP-8E Computer - About my first (working!) computer
- Humility - On The Death of Expertise and what this means for engineering
- On Checklists - Relying on memory is a fool's errand. Effective people use checklists.
- Why Does Software Cost So Much? - An exploration of this nagging question.
- Is the Future All Linux and Raspberry Pi? - Will we stop slinging bits and diddling registers?
- Will Coronavirus Spell the End of Open Offices - How can we continue to work in these sorts of conditions?
- Problems in Ramping Up Ventilator Production - It's not as easy as some think.
- Lessons from a Failure - what we can learn when a car wash goes wrong.
- Life in the Time of Coronavirus - how are you faring?
- Superintelligence - A review of Nick Bostrom's book on AI.
- A Lack of Forethought - Y2K redux
- How Projects Get Out of Control - Think requirements churn is only for software?
- 2019's Most Important Lesson. The 737 Max disasters should teach us one lesson.
- On Retiring - It's not quite that time, but slowing down makes sense. For me.
- On Discipline - The one thing I think many teams need...
- Data Seems to Have No Value - At least, that's the way people treat it.
- Apollo 11 and Navigation - In 1969 the astronauts used a sextant. Some of us still do.
- Definitions Part 2 - More fun definitions of embedded systems terms.
- Definitions - A list of (funny) definitions of embedded systems terms.
- On Meta-Politics - Where has thoughtful discourse gone?
- Millennials and Tools - It seems that many millennials are unable to fix anything.
- Crappy Tech Journalism - The trade press is suffering from so much cost-cutting that it does a poor job of educating engineers.
- Tech and Us - I worry that our technology is more than our human nature can manage.
- On Cataracts - Cataract surgery isn't as awful as it sounds.
- Can AI Replace Firmware - A thought: instead of writing code, is the future training AIs?
- Customer non-Support - How to tick off your customers in one easy lesson.
- Learn to Code in 3 Weeks! - Firmware is not simply about coding.
- We Shoot For The Moon - a new and interesting book about the Apollo moon program.
- On Expert Witness Work - Expert work is fascinating but can be quite the hassle.
- Married To The Team - Working in a team is a lot like marriage.
- Will We Ever Get Quantum Computers - Despite the hype, some feel quantum computing may never be practical.
- Apollo 11, The Movie - A review of a great new movie.
- Goto Considered Necessary - Edsger Dijkstra recants on his seminal paper
- GPS Will Fail - In April GPS will have its own Y2K problem. Unbelievable.
- LIDAR in Cars - Really? - Maybe there are better ideas.
- Why Did You Become an Engineer? - This is the best career ever.
- Software Process Improvement for Firmware - What goes on in an SPI audit?
- 50 Years of Ham Radio - 2019 marks 50 years of ham radio for me.
- Medical Device Lawsuits - They're on the rise, and firmware is part of the problem.
- A retrospective on 2018 - My marketing data for 2018, including web traffic and TEM information.
- Remembering Circuit Theory - Electronics is fun, and reviewing a textbook is pretty interesting.
- R vs D - Too many of us conflate research and development
- Engineer or Scientist? - Which are you? John Q. Public has a hard time telling the difference.
- A New, Low-Tech, Use for Computers - I never would have imagined this use for computers.
- NASA's Lost Software Engineering Lessons - Lessons learned, lessons lost.
- The Cost of Firmware - A Scary Story! - A hallowean story to terrify.
- A Review of First Man, the Movie - The book was great. The movie? Nope.
- A Review of The Overstory - One of the most remarkable novels I've read in a long time.
- What I Learned About Successful Consulting - Lessons learned about successful consulting.
- Low Power Mischief - Ultra-low power systems are trickier to design than most realize.
- Thoughts on Firmware Seminars - Better Firmware Faster resonates with a lot of people.
- On Evil - The Internet has brought the worst out in many.
- My Toothbrush has Modes - What! A lousy toothbrush has a UI?
- Review of SUNBURST and LUMINARY: An Apollo Memoir - A good book about the LM's code.
- Fun With Transmission Lines - Generating a step with no electronics.
- On N-Version Programming - Can we improve reliability through redundancy? Maybe not.
- On USB v. Bench Scopes - USB scopes are nice, but I'll stick with bench models.