What Role Will Open-Source Development Play in Quantum Computing?

Open-source products have proven influential in a wide range of enterprise applications. Will they have a similar effect on the coming quantum revolution?

Written by Yuval Boger
Published on Feb. 13, 2024
What Role Will Open-Source Development Play in Quantum Computing?
Image: Shutterstock / Built In

Open-source software projects have achieved remarkable success in the enterprise space. Linux (operating system), Hadoop (distributed processing), MySQL (database), Docker (containerization), Git (version control), TensorFlow, and PyTorch (machine learning) are all integral parts of the software landscape. Open-source hardware projects like Raspberry Pi, RISC-V have seen widespread adoption as well.

As we enter the exciting world of quantum computing, could open-source versions of quantum software and perhaps even hardware technologies have the same impact that these approaches had in the enterprise space?

Popular Open-Source Quantum Projects

  • Qiskit
  • PennyLane
  • Bloqade
  • Mitiq

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How Will Open-Source Development Impact Quantum?

Open-source quantum hardware and software projects offer a promising pathway to accelerating innovation, fostering collaboration, and democratizing access to cutting-edge technologies. By allowing researchers, developers, and enthusiasts to share code and designs freely, these initiatives can speed up development while also facilitating the standardization of architectures and interfaces, contributing to the creation of a more interoperable quantum ecosystem.

For instance, the Linux Foundation just launched the Post-Quantum Cryptography Alliance, which seeks to be the central foundation for organizations and open source projects seeking production-ready libraries.” Because of the strength of its founding members — AWS, NVIDIA, Cisco, Google, and others — it is likely to promote standardization in this area.

Open-source projects also play a crucial role in education and workforce development, helping demystify quantum computing and inspire future generations of quantum engineers. Relative to the enterprise networking or computing space, an unusually large portion of quantum computing innovation comes from academic institutions. Because these entities are often less concerned about commercializing such discoveries, open-source projects are a great way to expedite the development and use of their innovations. 


What Risks Does Open Source Pose to Quantum?

When multiple parties are able to review an open-source project, chances are that reliability and quality will increase as more eyes are available to examine various aspects of the work. But there are also risks and disadvantages that accompany open-source quantum projects. Open-sourcing hardware designs can make protecting innovations and recovering development costs difficult for companies. Developing quantum computing hardware requires substantial financial resources and specialized expertise, and doing so in an open-source model might complicate such projects without the backing of well-funded organizations or institutions. 

For instance, the cost of building a quantum computer is orders of magnitude higher than building your own Raspberry Pi board. High-end quantum computers can cost many millions of dollars. The success of open-source projects largely depends on how many active contributors each project has. The presence of many collaborators also makes other users comfortable that a project is stable and sustainable and is less likely to be abandoned. Thus, while a hobbyist or a small organization can build their version of the Raspberry Pi board, significantly few organizations can afford to build, and thus to participate, in open-source projects for quantum computers.

When it comes to software, although the transparency that open source affords could enhance security, the tradeoff is that potential vulnerabilities are more visible to malicious actors who can detect and exploit them. 


The Promise of Open-Source Quantum Software

In the quantum realm, most popular open-source projects are software-related. Qiskit, an open-source software development framework from IBM, and PennyLane, a quantum machine-learning framework from Xanadu, are widely used. Bloqade from QuEra also provides both simulation and execution of quantum programs using neutral atoms. Qiskit has been particularly impactful: By the end of 2023, nearly 300 software projects depended directly or indirectly on Qiskit, and hundreds of academic articles were based on code created using this framework.

Although the Qiskit, PennyLane, and Bloqade projects are led by commercial institutions, the Unitary Fund, a non-profit organization, has been supporting the open-source movement by providing micro-grants for open-source quantum projects. It has also led its own open-source projects, such as Mitiq, which is used for quantum error mitigation. You can hear my podcast interview with the CTO of the Unitary Fund here.

Open-source frameworks have had a significant educational impact. Free online courses such as those from EdX allow an easy on-ramp to quantum technology, while numerous universities have developed quantum computing courses based on open-source development frameworks and simulators.


Will Open-Source Quantum Hardware Arrive Soon?

Though open-source software has captured the headlines, open-source quantum hardware has also recently come into focus. A particularly interesting article, Open Hardware in Quantum Technology provides a comprehensive overview of the current state and future potential of open-source quantum hardware. It outlines the current projects in the open-source hardware ecosystem, spanning a wide range of topics, from processor design to control, testing, and benchmarking platforms. The article identifies gaps in the ecosystem, including the need for broader adoption across various quantum technologies, improved interoperability and standards, and standardized benchmarks. It also provides recommendations for future development, including expanding open quantum hardware projects to encompass a broader range of quantum technologies, enhancing APIs and standards for better interoperability, developing open-source benchmarking suites, and increasing open access to quantum hardware.


Open-Source Development and National Quantum Tech 

Quantum technologies have become a geopolitical issue, and we’re seeing countries invest billions in developing their local ecosystems and trying to create a national advantage using quantum tech. Open-source quantum computing projects present certain risks at the national level, particularly regarding the safeguarding of sensitive quantum technologies. Countries investing heavily in quantum research may view open-source initiatives cautiously, as these projects could inadvertently expose breakthroughs in quantum computing, cryptography, or sensing technologies that have significant national security implications. 

The open nature of these projects means that rival nations can access and use advancements made within another countrys borders. This accessibility raises concerns about maintaining a competitive edge and protecting intellectual property that could be crucial for national defense or economic advantage. 

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An Open-Source Quantum Future

In conclusion, open-source quantum computing projects offer significant benefits in terms of innovation, accessibility, and community development, both for hardware and software. They also face challenges related to intellectual property, sustainability, and quality control. Although open-source quantum projects contribute to the global advancement of quantum technologies, nations must strike a delicate balance, navigating the tension between promoting open innovation and collaboration and the imperative to safeguard their strategic interests in the rapidly evolving quantum landscape. Balancing these pros and cons is crucial for leveraging the full potential of open-source initiatives in advancing the quantum computing field.

I am personally less of a believer in open-source hardware projects, preferring to focus on open-source software. The barriers to entry in software are much lower. Practically anyone in the world can fork, build, and start contributing to a software project. Hardware development, on the other hand, requires so much infrastructure and funding and is such an important part of a company’s IP that I see less enthusiasm to support and contribute to such open-source hardware efforts.

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