How You Could Benefit From Smaller Quantum Computers

The uncertainty principle at home?

Key Takeaways

  • Quantum computers could be a lot smaller thanks to a breakthrough by Cambridge University researchers. 
  • However, experts say that quantum computers are unlikely to power personal devices anytime soon. 
  • Quantum computing that’s run in the cloud could help scientists discover new materials and medicines.
Conceptual image: A computer chip on a board with a cloud above it.

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A quantum computer might one day fit on your desk, but don’t expect it to power your PC anytime soon. 

Researchers at a Cambridge University-led consortium have found a way to squeeze an operating system that could work quantum computers onto a chip. Quantum computing is currently being explored as a way to do everything from making airplanes lighter to breaking strong encryption. Don’t give up your smartphone just yet, however. 

"It is unlikely anyone will have a quantum computer in their home or pocket anytime soon, or possibly ever," Matt Doty, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Delaware, told Lifewire in an email interview.

"The immediate impact on people's lives will likely come from cloud services that use quantum computers to offer unique power, probably running in the background in a way that is not obvious to the user."

Enter the Quantum Age

The new quantum system is called Deltaflow.OS, and was designed by Cambridge University startup Riverlane to run using a fraction of the space necessary in previous hardware.

"In its most simple terms, we have put something that once filled a room onto a chip the size of a coin, and it works," Matthew Hutchings, the co-founder of SEEQC, a quantum computing company that partnered with Riverlane, said in a news release.

"This is as significant for the future of quantum computers as the microchip itself was for commercializing traditional computers, allowing them to be produced cost-effectively and at scale."

While quantum computing might not be ready for personal use, it's likely to have practical benefits for users. 

"Quantum computing can be much more powerful than existing computers in application scenarios, some of which can be revolutionary to our daily life," Xiu Yang, a professor at Lehigh University's Industrial and Systems Engineering Department, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Research using quantum computing could improve the fundamental study of materials, resulting in lighter airplanes that will save fuel and batteries with higher energy density that give electric vehicles a longer range, Yang said. Quantum computers also could fuel drug discovery by running molecular level simulations more efficiently than using current computers. 

Some scientists speculate on even more exotic possibilities for quantum computing. 

This is as significant for the future of quantum computers as the microchip itself was for commercializing traditional computers.

"Humans can easily have a 'digital twin' in which every atom in a human body could be represented in a quantum device and simulations can be conducted on that digital twin, Terrill Frantz, a professor who teaches quantum computing at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, told Lifewire in an email interview.

Challenges Ahead

But there are many obstacles to making quantum computing useful, even if the operating systems are getting smaller. Quantum computing is an entirely different technology than classical computing, both at a hardware and software level. 

Doty pointed out that the familiar bit that runs current computers is either in a zero or one state. Meanwhile, a quantum computer bit, called a qubit, can be in a superposition, which essentially means a mixture of zero and one. 

"The power of a quantum computer comes from using these superpositions to do something that is roughly analogous to massively parallel processing," Doty added. "The challenge is that these superpositions are fragile—they collapse easily into just a zero or one, in which case all the power of the quantum computer is lost."

Conceptual image: A brain atop a computer chip on a computer board, signifying artificial intelligence.

Just_Super / Getty Images

A significant challenge in building quantum computers is finding the hardware and software system that minimizes and compensates for these types of errors.

Doty said some companies had built quantum computers that can handle the challenge of limiting errors for small numbers of bits. Developing the hardware, equipment, and software that can fulfill the promise of quantum computing would need to enable thousands or millions of bits. 

"It is not clear what material platform or structure is best," Doty added. "My guess is that ultimately we will end up with 'hybrid' systems that combine the best of multiple different materials and methods."

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