|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).
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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.
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