Quantum Computers Could Eventually Power Your Smartphone

But better security is a more immediate quantum bonus

Key Takeaways

  • MIT researchers have found a way to make smaller quantum computers.
  • Experts say gadgets powered by quantum computers are possible, but likely a long way off.
  • Smartphones that use quantum effects could offer better security.
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Quantum computers could one day power the gadgets in your pocket. 

The smallest current quantum computers are too bulky to be portable, but MIT researchers have now used ultrathin materials to build superconducting qubits, the quantum computer equivalent of transistors. It's part of a quickening effort to make quantum computers practical for everyday use. 

"Quantum devices, particularly for sensing enabled by solid-state quantum technology, are well on their way to being "personal electronics" size," Prineha Narang, a professor of computational materials science at Harvard University who studies quantum computing (who was not involved in the MIT study), told Lifewire in an email interview. "Lots of advantages to small footprint sensors, particularly distributed quantum sensors."

Shrinking the Gap

The key to making a more practical quantum computer is partly about size. Transistors in regular computers are made to nanometer scales, while superconducting qubits, the quantum mechanical analog of a classical bit, are still measured in millimeters. 

The MIT researchers built superconducting qubits that are at least one-hundredth the size of conventional designs and suffer from less interference between neighboring qubits.

illustration showing how MIT researchers used hexagonal boron nitride to build smaller capacitors for superconducting qubits

Christine Daniloff and Jose-Luis Olivares / MIT

The researchers have demonstrated in a recent paper that hexagonal boron nitride, a material consisting of only a few monolayers of atoms, can be stacked to form the insulator in the capacitors on a superconducting qubit. This material enables capacitors that are much smaller than those typically used in a qubit, which shrinks its footprint without significantly sacrificing performance.

"Right now, we can have maybe 50 or 100 qubits in a device, but for practical use in the future, we will need thousands or millions of qubits in a device," one of the paper's authors, Joel Wang, said in a news release. "So, it will be very important to miniaturize the size of each individual qubit and at the same time avoid the unwanted cross-talk between these hundreds of thousands of qubits."

Uncertainty Principle

Despite the recent work at MIT, don’t count on running out to buy a quantum iPhone anytime soon. 

Quantum computers are likely to remain in data centers and laboratories for the foreseeable future, James Sanders, an analyst who covers quantum computing, told Lifewire in an email interview. Most quantum computers require specialized cooling equipment to bring qubit arrays to extremely low temperatures. That said, quantum startup Quantum Brilliance recently developed a quantum computer that is the size of a lunch box and can run at room temperature. 

However, more practical uses for quantum mechanics in gadgets may be using quantum principles such as entanglement and superposition. These strange quirks of the quantum world may offer more security to personal devices that use them. Samsung has announced its first quantum technology-based smartphone, the Quantum 2, which includes the world's smallest quantum random number generator for better security. 

"The security provided by quantum technology cannot be broken in principle, so a phone equipped with quantum technology could be completely secure," Jitesh Lalwani, the founder of a quantum computing startup, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Quantum computers could also enable sophisticated machine learning, allowing better face and voice recognition, Yuval Boger, the CMO at quantum computing software company Classiq, told Lifewire in an email interview. Using quantum computers, better smartphone batteries—both lighter and with a higher energy capacity—can be created. Autonomous cars could also use quantum computing to achieve better performance as well as to take optimal routes and have better sensors.

"Right now, we can have maybe 50 or 100 qubits in a device, but for practical use in the future, we will need thousands or millions of qubits..."

Rainer Martini, an expert in quantum communications at Steven Institute of Technology, told Lifewire in an email interview that a quantum computer could one day form the basis of a super-smart companion. 

"Imagine now that you could have a vastly increased computing power at hand—where the phone not only recognizes the words, but also the tone of your voice, the environment, and even watches and interprets your facial expressions, as well as your surroundings and persons nearby," Martini said. "Based on the increased computing power, the phone would be able to use all this input to interact with the user."

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