What is Quantum Computing and Why Should the Chip Industry Care?

Quantum computing will change the world when it arrives. Although it’s still years away, companies are already getting creative using today’s hardware.

Imagine the scope of a problem that would take even the world’s fastest supercomputer years to solve. Now imagine that problem being solved in seconds. This is the promise of quantum computing—one that has been decades in the making.  

While today’s lead quantum computing firms still haven’t cracked the code on qubits, the subatomic particles that will eventually replace binary 1s and 0s, the next renaissance in computing might not be far off.  

In the meantime, companies are working to take advantage of quantum theory using modern-day hardware. But what does this mean for the semiconductor industry?  

Massive Change to Computing

When computing went mobile, the world changed forever. Computers that once filled entire rooms now fit in your pocket—with new mobile devices being far more powerful than the massive machines of days past. Over the years, computing has gone through several phases of disruption. Although it’s been several years since the last revolutionary leap, experts believe quantum computing will once again reshape the way we think about computers.  

The leap from binary computing to quantum computing is exponential. The way qubits interact, being able to exist in two states at once, more naturally replicates nature than a series of on-and-off switches. It means a quantum machine can carry out multiple functions simultaneously and more easily re-create the conditions needed to solve complex problems like discovering new drug molecules.  

In this environment, crunching massive data sets and training artificial intelligence (AI) models becomes laughably easy. It’s no wonder the tech industry is salivating over the promise of qubits.  

Sure, quantum computers currently exist, hidden in the labs of IBM and NASA, among others. But current iterations are highly limited in their construction—and capabilities. Before the full benefits of quantum computing can be unlocked, there are many technological challenges to overcome. Not to mention the training involved with teaching people how to utilize the technology to its full potential.  

From calculating the best materials for airplanes to discovering ideal stock trades and managing cybersecurity risks to tuning AI systems, quantum computing has plenty to offer.  

When Will Quantum Computing Be Mainstream?

The quantum computing industry is already booming. Billions of dollars are being poured into research and development by companies and governments around the world. So, when will this disruptive technology become mainstream?  

Experts can’t come to a consensus. Some believe quantum computers will be able to break any existing digital encryption as soon as 2029, representing a need to transition online infrastructure away from binary hardware. Others speculate we won’t see commercially available quantum computers until 2050.  

Either way, this technology isn’t in the realm of impossibility. Whether the necessary breakthroughs arrive in a few years or a few decades, the age of quantum computing seems inevitable.  

As Celia Merzbacher, executive director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, said in a 2021 keynote, “I think when we make certain milestones, things may go pretty quickly through the scaling and getting to that million qubit system where we can do something useful.”

Making Do With Current Tech

In the meantime, companies aren’t standing by. They’re using the excitement surrounding quantum computing to start applying principles of the technology to today’s hardware.  

A startup called QC Ware originally raised $33 million to focus on quantum computing software. In a move to find solutions for its current clients, the company is using Nvidia GPUs to build a bridge between binary and quantum.  

Given the power of modern GPUs, they have applications in many industries, including AI. They are also used in quantum development. QC Ware uses them to run its Promethium platform, which simulates chemical molecules and their interactions far faster than existing software solutions. A feat like this became possible just a few years ago as AI chips continued to get more powerful.  

Elsewhere, quantum-focused startups like Alphabet spinoff SandBoxAQ are raising billions thanks to the quantum buzz. SandBoxAQ built a specialized AI chip called a Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) with a quantum-inspired algorithm for analyzing biopharmaceutical molecules.  

Unfortunately, these clever solutions won’t be operational on quantum machines when they arrive. But there are still plenty of benefits. William Hurley of quantum software startup Strangeworks says, “[Having engineers] learning about quantum and the phenomenon and the process, which will better prepare them to use quantum computers at the point that they do so.”  

For the chip industry, the quantum leap will be a turning point. There will still be plenty of gadgets running on binary hardware. Not every IoT device or wearable needs the power of qubits. But when a new species of computing hardware dominates the high-end market, how will the industry adapt? The answer to this question needs to be determined in the coming years as the promise of quantum computing inches ever closer to reality.

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