The next quantum leap?
Researchers all over the world are investing a great deal of time and effort in the development of practical quantum computers – which are still more or less in the experimental stage. This topic has been receiving more attention since autumn 2019, when Google introduced a quantum computer that was faster than any other supercomputer at completing a specific task. Not only the well-known tech giants, but Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, too, is working to develop quantum computers, in collaboration with partners. It is also providing leading-edge materials for producing these computers.
42: Science fiction becomes a reality
Anyone who read Douglas Adams’s science-fiction classic “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in the 1980s as I did knows that the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” is “42”. In the book, the supercomputer Deep Thought performs that calculation – and needs over 7.5 million years.
Supercomputers have since become a reality. But their purpose is not to find the meaning of life, but to discover new products, applications and patterns. Businesses and policymakers are already making significant investments in this technology. In 2016, the EU launched its Quantum Technologies Flagship, which is slated to allocate a total of € 1 billion for the development of these technologies in Europe by 2026. The German government plans to invest € 650 million in research into quantum technologies, under the leadership of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
Although Europe is doing quite well in the field of quantum computing, the most effort and some of the greatest successes are coming, as is so often the case, from the United States. In October 2019, Google’s Sycamore quantum computer solved a mathematical problem in 200 seconds that, according to Google, would have taken the world’s fastest supercomputer approximately 10,000 years to complete. Despite skepticism on the part of some experts about that claim, the U.S. company wasted no time in trumpeting the “quantum advantage” – pointing out that for the first time, a quantum computer had outperformed traditional supercomputers on a specific task. At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the U.S. company IBM introduced the world’s first integrated quantum computer, which was intended primarily for commercial customers and applications.
Qubits instead of bits
But what, exactly, is a quantum computer? As a computer scientist, I am of course deeply interested in that question. A brief explanation: A quantum computer is a computer with a special kind of processor. Unlike a traditional computer, whose CPU performs calculations using bits that have a value 0 or 1, a quantum computer and its “QPU” calculates using quantum bits, also known as qubits. A qubit is a unit of quantum information that can simultaneously be both 0 and 1 as well as an infinite number of intermediate states between 0 and 1. So a qubit can store considerably more information than a classic binary bit, and parallel mathematical operations are possible. Combining qubits boosts their performance exponentially. Theoretically, therefore, a quantum computer can perform calculations for highly complex models that are still beyond the capabilities of traditional systems.
Yet qubits have disadvantages as well. They are volatile, and only in the absence of external influences do they run error-free. That’s why the most obvious feature of a quantum computer is its cooling unit – the cryocooler. Most quantum chips can function only at temperatures close to absolute zero: −273°C. These highly sensitive computers also need to be shielded from the outside world by a vacuum.
The real problem, however, is that the number of qubits that programmable quantum computers are able to combine is limited to the double digits, and, depending on the technology that is used, some of their calculations are still fraught with errors. The Google quantum computer mentioned above, for example, uses 53 qubits. The first step in building a practical quantum computer that can use multiple thousands of qubits is to find ways to improve how we design qubits and quantum processors, or entirely new approaches. Only then will it be possible to scale processor size and reduce the error rate to an acceptable level.
Technically, there are various approaches to creating qubits – for example electrically, using superconducting chips; optically, using ions; or with the help of innovative topological materials. All of these approaches have advantages as well as disadvantages and are still in the development stage. Moreover, a great deal of research is still needed if we are to benefit from the full potential of this cutting-edge technology – focusing not only on hardware, but also on the algorithms that are used in quantum computing.
In an effort to develop more advanced quantum computers, we are therefore not only supplying the state-of-the-art materials that are needed for production, but also collaborating with startups, industry partners and research institutions. Our partner Seeqc, for example, is working to commercialize the world’s fastest superconducting rapid single flux quantum (RSFQ) logic, which is placed directly on the quantum chip and in the cryocooler. This quantum computer platform is commercially scalable and powers problem-specific applications.
In summer 2019, we announced the launch of a three-year partnership with the Karlsruhe-based startup HQS Quantum Simulations aimed at facilitating the application and commercialization of software used in quantum chemistry. Regarding potential areas of application, we anticipate that quantum computers will be used first in chemistry, where they will make it possible to carry out precise quantum chemical calculations.
Our partnership with the London startup Rahko focuses on the use of quantum-based machine learning for the development of new medicinal products, molecules and materials. We are also a member of the QuPharm alliance, which was launched in November 2019 to promote the use of quantum computers in the field of life science. In addition to quantum chemistry and pharmaceutical research, the financial sector and the field of artificial intelligence are likely to benefit enormously from quantum computing.
The bottom line: Quantum computers that offer real advantages over traditional supercomputers are still a long way off. Experts believe that it will take one or two generations of programmers before quantum computers are suitable for practical use. However, we found ourselves at a similar threshold in the 1960s and 1970s with traditional computers. In any event, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany and its partners will do their part. And if, someday, the ultimate quantum computer becomes a reality, we may find that 42 is not, after all, the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything.