Quantum Computers Are Getting a Boost—Here's What That Could Mean for You

New devices could unlock nature’s secrets

  • Researchers are making progress toward practical quantum computers.
  • Quantinuum has released what it claims is the highest-performing quantum computer yet built. 
  • Quantum computing could lead to drug discovery, materials science, and life sciences breakthroughs.
Dario Gil, Director of IBM Research, standing in front of IBM Q System One on October 18, 2019 at the company's research facility in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Misha Friedman / Getty Images

Quantum computers are getting closer to becoming practical devices, and experts say they could revolutionize fields such as drug discovery, materials science, and life sciences.

Quantinuum has released what it claims is the highest-performing quantum computer yet built, called System Model H2. The computer is less prone to errors than earlier models. 

"This is a huge step for practical quantum computing," Tony Uttley, the president of Quantinuum, told Lifewire in an email interview. "One thing our announcement highlights is that our quantum computer can do things that classical computers cannot. Specifically, because our quantum computer can take advantage of intrinsically quantum features like superposition and entanglement, it is now a tool that condensed matter physicists and high energy physicists can use to conduct experiments that have up until now only been theoretical." 

Unlocking Practical Quantum Computing

A quantum computer uses the principles of quantum mechanics to perform calculations that are impossible or very hard for classical computers. These machines operate with qubits, which are like bits but can simultaneously be in a superposition of 0 and 1. This feat allows a quantum computer to explore many possible solutions simultaneously and find the optimal one faster.

Quantum computers could have vast implications for advances in many areas. By solving computational problems that are impossible for classical computers, quantum computers will enable breakthroughs in modeling and controlling nature, Paul Lipman, Chief Commercial Officer at the quantum computing company Infleqtion said in an email. 

"There will always be a place for 'ordinary' computers," Lipman added. "Quantum computers won't give us faster video games or better spreadsheets. However, quantum computers will ultimately have a profound impact on many aspects of our lives—from creating targeted medical therapies to developing more environmentally friendly and efficient techniques for developing fertilizers, more energy-efficient batteries, and much else."

One stumbling block for quantum computers is that they are prone to errors due to the delicate nature of their qubits. Researchers are working on quantum error correction to protect information by encoding it across multiple physical qubits to form a 'logical qubit.' 

Practical quantum computers "will require thousands of error-corrected logical qubits—each of which will require anywhere from dozens to hundreds of physical qubits," Lipman said. "Significant advances are needed in all areas of the quantum computing field to achieve this goal."

Quantum computers won't give us faster video games or better spreadsheets.

But researchers are making progress toward practical quantum computing. One exciting recent advance is optical quantum bit manipulation, Hamid Pishdadian, the CEO of SQE Holdings, a digital platform that uses quantum security, said via email. 

"Up until now, quantum computing has required cryogenic freezing to keep the technology running smoothly," he added. "Optical quantum bit manipulation allows them to run at room temperature, which could lead to far more widespread availability."

Quantum computers are already being inserted into many people's lives, often in places that they may not know, Uttley said. For example, Quantinuum uses its H-Series quantum computers to generate quantum-computing-hardened encryption keys. 

"These encryption keys are used by companies and organizations around the world to offer the world's best protection for critical data," he added.

A conceptual image of a quantum computer with fiber optic leads.

Bartlomiej Wroblewski / Getty Images

When WIll Quantum Computer Be Available?

Billions of dollars are invested in quantum computing by governments, institutions, and investment firms worldwide, Lipman noted. IBM recently released a 433-qubit quantum computer (the largest in the world). Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have demonstrated trapping over 1,200 atoms in an array that will lead to large-scale quantum computers utilizing individual atoms as qubits. 

"Advanced quantum clocks are on the cusp of commercialization," he added. "These quantum-enabled devices will enable revolutions in fields as diverse as telecommunications, navigation, database efficiency, earthquake prediction, financial trading networks, cybersecurity, and energy grid resilience."

While many companies are experimenting with quantum computing today, practical applications beyond 'proof of concept' projects are probably 2-3 years away, Yuval Boger, the Chief Marketing Officer at the quantum computing company Classiq said in an email interview.

"In the foreseeable future, quantum computers will be a 'back-end' infrastructure technology," he added. "Just like transatlantic fiber links or ultra-large storage farms, quantum computing will impact the way companies do business, but are unlikely to become an edge device for ordinary computer users."

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