Established applications for quantum computers do exist. The best known is Peter Shor's 1994 theoretical demonstration that a quantum computer can solve the hard problem of finding the prime factors of large numbers exponentially faster than all classical schemes. Prime factorization is at the heart of breaking the universally used RSA-based cryptography, so Shor's factorization scheme immediately attracted the attention of national governments everywhere, leading to considerable quantum-computing research funding. The only problem? Actually making a quantum computer that could do it. That depends on implementing an idea pioneered by Shor and others called quantum-error correction, a process to compensate for the fact that quantum states disappear quickly because of environmental noise (a phenomenon called "decoherence"). In 1994, scientists thought that such error correction would be easy because physics allows it. But in practice, it is extremely difficult.With computers, it was always obvious that bigger and better ones would be possible. Intermediate results could be stored in memory. With quantum computers, it is not clear that scaling up will be possible.
The most advanced quantum computers today have dozens of decohering (or "noisy") physical qubits. Building a quantum computer that could crack RSA codes out of such components would require many millions if not billions of qubits. Only tens of thousands of these would be used for computation -- so-called logical qubits; the rest would be needed for error correction, compensating for decoherence. The qubit systems we have today are a tremendous scientific achievement, but they take us no closer to having a quantum computer that can solve a problem that anybody cares about. It is akin to trying to make today's best smartphones using vacuum tubes from the early 1900s. You can put 100 tubes together and establish the principle that if you could somehow get 10 billion of them to work together in a coherent, seamless manner, you could achieve all kinds of miracles. What, however, is missing is the breakthrough of integrated circuits and CPUs leading to smartphones -- it took 60 years of very difficult engineering to go from the invention of transistors to the smartphone with no new physics involved in the process.
Thursday, March 31, 2022
Quantum Computing is a Paper Tiger
From a new MIT Technology Review paper: