Q&A with Doug Finke, managing editor of Quantum Computing Report
TPG: What is it about quantum technology that you find most intriguing?
DF: People have been working to improve the performance of classical computers for over 70 years. But the interesting thing is that the basic physics principles that computers rely on haven’t changed in over 70 years. All the progress has been made by engineering the transistors and the systems to be smaller, using lots and lots more transistors and processor cores, creating clever architectures to process more things in parallel and networking lots of computers together to improve the computation capability. Quantum computers are fundamentally different because they use certain principles of quantum physics, namely superposition and entanglement, which had not been previously utilized to create a whole new paradigm of computing. These computers can solve certain problems in a completely different way and not just some scaled-up version of a solution that was used in the past.
TPG: Tell us about your role with the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Quantum Computing.
DF: Although a lot of press attention goes to the Davos gathering, which happens every January in Switzerland, a lot of the work takes place in what are called the Global Future Councils. These are sort of like subcommittees that explore specific topics. I am part of the Global Future Council for Quantum Computing and we are working to create several deliverables that will educate people about the potential impact as well as the potential challenges with quantum computers. Unfortunately, there is a lot of hype right now and we are working to explain what is happening without creating any unrealistic expectations. Currently, I am working on some basic FAQs that can help educate the public on quantum computing without them getting lost in technical jargon.
TPG: How do you think quantum computing will impact the computer industry and beyond?
DF: One of the most important things to understand is that a quantum computer will never replace classical computers. Classical computers will always be better for uses such as browsing the internet, reading email, figuring out your bank balance, maintaining a financial transaction data base, etc. Rather, quantum computers will be used more as co-processors that will solve specific complex computational problems.
It will be somewhat similar to how people use GPU accelerators today. Most of the quantum computers will be cloud based and although you shouldn’t expect to ever see one in your pocket or on your desktop, you will be able to access it via the cloud over the internet. Quantum computing will certainly allow someone to find a computational solution to problems that cannot be solved on a classical computer, but these will only be very specific problems with certain structures that a quantum computer will be well suited to solve.
TPG: What was your first computer?
DF: Many years ago, I worked for a Silicon Valley company called Chips and Technologies. They were a fabless semiconductor company that pioneered the use of chipsets to create clones of the IBM PC. They had a fabulous program for employees called “Loan to Own” in which they would provide you with a 12 Mhz. Intel 286 based PC-AT machine for use at home and if you stayed with the company for a year, you got to keep it. It was a pretty valuable perk because PCs were expensive back then.
TPG: What’s the latest quantum news?
DF: As I am writing this, we are all in lockdown and everyone is working from home if they can. I thought that the quantum computing developments might slow down, but it seems to be just the opposite. Every day I am talking with people in the industry about new developments of higher performance processors, technical breakthroughs, new software platforms being released, and significant partnerships being formed between quantum companies and enterprise end-users. To see specifics, it probably would be best to read it on the News page of the Quantum Computing Report website.
TPG: When do you think organizations need to start paying attention to their current cryptography and security vis a vis quantum computers?
DF: This is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that it will require a very powerful quantum computer to break the encryption we use in computer systems today. The best estimate is that the powerful quantum computers won’t be available for another 10-20 years. However, there is a technique that nefarious actors use called “Harvest Now, Decrypt Later.” Someone could tap into a communications line and record some encrypted communication onto a bank of hard drives that they save for many years. Although the encrypted information would be useless when they first receive it, when those powerful quantum computers become available they could decrypt the information sometime in the future. This is only valuable if the information that you decrypt is still valid and useful ten years from now.
Most of the information we communicate today will be either out of date or just not valuable many years from now. But certain information such as medical information, design information for military products, etc. may still be of interest a long time from now. We call this data “High Shelf Life, High Value” data. We recommend that every organization take a look at the data they have and see if they have any data in this category. If so, they should think about starting a program to implement one of the quantum-resistant encryption methods very soon.
TPG: What’s the state of the quantum market?
DF: The quantum computers we have today are not quite powerful enough to achieve what we call “Quantum Advantage” where it is able to perform a commercially valuable computation better than the highest performance classical computers. However, we do expect to reach this stage within the next 2-5 years. You might say we are currently in the “Quantum Ready” state. It takes a few years for someone to learn how to program a quantum computer and figure out how it can be applied to solve a problem they are currently experiencing in their organization. So, they are using the smaller machines, as well as quantum computing simulators that run on a classical machine, to learn how to create a quantum program and try out and debug their programs on smaller “toy models” of their problem. Once they have successfully done that and the larger quantum computers are available, a user will be able to easily scale up their programs and put them to use for commercial advantage.
TPG: What do you see as the biggest impacts quantum computing will have?
DF: One of the more exciting potential applications will be the use of quantum computing for quantum chemistry including material design, drug discovery, and chemical reactions. As an example, Daimler and IBM are working to utilize quantum computing to optimize the chemical formulas used in electric car batteries to maximize storage capacity, weight, and size. The pharmaceutical companies are all putting in place small teams to study how a quantum computer can accelerate drug discovery by performing a quantum simulation at the molecular level so see how a new drug might perform.
Financial companies, such as Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, are very interested in using a quantum computer to replace classical computing’s Monte Carlo techniques to find the optimal mix of assets to maximize returns and minimize risks. A lot of research is also underway for various optimization problems. For example, Volkswagen has performed several tests of how they can use a quantum computer to optimize traffic flows in a city to decrease traffic jams and improve transit times. People are also researching the use of quantum computers for machine learning, but those applications are likely a little further out.
TPG: Tell us about your “scorecards;” what’s the latest with qubit count, qubit quality, and qubit technology.
DF: One of the strong points of the Quantum Computing Report is that it is more than just a news site. It is also a database that can provide people within the industry a good record of what is happening. We provide a complete listing of all the players working on quantum technology including universities, startups, government organizations, and large public companies. We also provide tables that show which companies are partnering with each other.
The qubit count, qubit quality, and qubit technology scorecards help our readers keep track of technical developments. They can see how many qubits different groups have achieved and the quality levels of those qubits. And because people are pursuing such a wide variety of different technologies to implement quantum computers, the qubit technology table provides the most complete list available of which groups are using which hardware technologies. We are currently tracking over 100 different projects amongst 80 teams, all working to develop the best quantum computer that they can!