In spring 2019, a mysterious account called Quantum Bullshit Detector emerged on Twitter, which started commenting on all kinds of news in the quantum scene. Announcements of breakthroughs, industry forecasts and lectures by top-tier universities all received one word of commentary: “Bullshit.”
On rare occasions, the response was slightly more robust: “Not bullshit.”
Despite its cheeky nature, the account didn’t seem to be purely a joke. Experts and journalists alike speculated on who was behind it. The poster seemed to be someone who was very familiar with the jargon, which meant it was almost definitely someone from inside the community. As people involved with quantum technology are almost exclusively scientists who, per their job description, love debating ideas, the account’s laconic style and unwillingness to debate made this mystery even more puzzling.
After several months of voicing opinions in its unapologetic style, computer science professor David J. Bruton, alias Scott Aaronson, revealed himself as the brain behind the bullshit detector. The quantum community, while supportive of the account’s underlying principle, didn’t like the fact that it was a one-man show, however well-executed. Thus, the Democratic Quantum Bullshit Detector was launched. This account determined whether something was “Bullshit” or “Not Bullshit” via Twitter polls.
Somewhat surprisingly, a budding quantum company acquired the original detector in early 2021. Soon after, it shut down operations. The democratic version of the bullshit detector, while still active, so far has failed to gain as much traction as the original one.
That’s why, at this point in time, no one entity is policing the quantum space. Absent such a single arbiter, cautionary voices have gotten louder. Some need to be taken more seriously than others, of course. But many different voices hold forth with a vast spectrum of opinions. Some think the whole quantum field is a giant scam, whereas others hypothesize that we might not see significant breakthroughs for the next few decades, and still others warn that people are obsessing too much about how many qubits some quantum computers have and too little about the quality of those qubits.
Dismissing an entire promising technological frontier that has been built on solid science for decades as mere hype does seem like overkill. Still, with the amount of public and private investments in quantum tech soaring in recent years, it makes sense to give cautionary voices room to be heard. Though unlikely, it’s not inconceivable that overblown greed and groupthink is making policymakers and private investors write easy checks without doing their due diligence. So, is quantum all hype, or are we right to believe in its transformative potential?
Are Researchers Overpromising? Are Governments Overinvesting?
News abounds that quantum companies are raising many millions of dollars or that one of them has made another breakthrough. To people without a background in quantum physics or a related field, this might seem like a giant scam, ready to implode at any moment. The promises that the industry gives — from developing better drugs to building better software for finance to revolutionizing cryptography — may seem too far-fetched and all-over-the-place to be true.
However far-fetched, if some key issues with quantum computers get sorted out, all these promises will come true. But those key issues are what’s making the game complicated.
For a quantum computer to be usable, it needs around a million qubits. A qubit is a quantum unit of storage, analogous to a bit in a classical computer. The big problem is that qubits are highly unstable and error-prone. At the time of writing this article, the record stands at a qubit that stored its data for nine seconds, and even getting a few hundred error-free qubits is a huge feat.
Recent developments do look encouraging, however. These include, but aren’t limited to, using nanostructures for quantum electronics, mathematically proving that quantum AI works, and building the largest quantum computer to date. If progress continues like it has the past few years, we’ll be well in the era of quantum computing by the time this decade is over.
I do understand how outlandish the predictions about quantum computing can seem to someone who is new to the domain. Then again, in my personal experience, explaining advanced physics to a layperson always makes me feel a little like I’m a magician trying to instruct a novice. Despite how insane physics theories often sound, however, they’re often the foundation that today’s technology relies on.
To give you an example, you wouldn’t be able to read this article on your device if it weren’t for semiconductor physics. The building blocks of computers and most other electronic devices are transistors. They act as on-off switches that encode all of a computer’s data. For example, the letter A translates to 01000001 in binary code; that’s eight transistors where zero means switched off and one means switched on. Transistors, in turn, are made of semiconductors. And if physicists hadn’t started obsessing about semiconductors in the middle of the last century, we would be living in a very different age today — one without computers and other electronic devices.
There’s no question that the promises, the large sums of money at stake, and government endorsements are putting the field under pressure it’s never seen before. My prediction, however, is that it will thrive under this pressure rather than crumble.
Quantum Is Already Yielding Results
The reason for my optimism is simple: Quantum technology is already in use! For example, positron emission tomography is a standard medical procedure to scan regions of the human body. The principle is that a small amount of a radioactive substance is given intravenously, and its radioactive decay is subsequently detected.
In this radioactive decay, a positron (hence the name) collides with an electron. During the collision, these two particles become two entangled photons. This may sound very fancy, but it just means that two particles that make light are linked to one another on a quantum level. The photons, and their entanglement, are finally captured in a detector. Because we know that they’re emitted at 180 degrees from one another at the collision site, we can calculate where this site was from the location of the photons in the detector. The sum of all matching photons, back-tracked to their collision site, then becomes the image of a body part.
This is not a recent breakthrough, though: Positron emission tomography has been in use since the 1970s. Still, it uses quantum tech!
A more recent product of quantum tech is random numbers. Although using a futuristic supercomputer to make, of all things, a heap of totally random numbers might sound silly, this principle lies at the heart of a lot of modern cryptography and statistical simulations. Quantum computers are very good at making random numbers because the measurement of a quantum state, as it occurs in quantum computers, is inherently random.
Swiss company ID Quantique sells the random numbers it has generated on quantum computers, and it’s one of the few quantum companies that is currently profitable. For comparison, IonQ, the first publicly traded firm that focuses solely on quantum computing, doesn’t expect significant revenue or profit until 2024 or 2025. This is indicative of how early in its development quantum technology still is.
Positron emission tomography and random numbers are just two examples, though. We can expect dozens more to appear over the next decade due to advances in building more and better qubits, making quantum software, and the sheer amount of money and talent that is gravitating towards quantum and making these breakthroughs possible. They prove, however, that quantum technology is already in deployment and making profits.
Recent Breakthroughs and What’s Still to Come
One of the most exciting recent breakthroughs in the field comes from the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Researchers there managed to demonstrate “spin-locking,” a quantum technique that allows finding nitrogen-vacancy defects in diamonds with much higher accuracy. The technique can be generalized to other materials and might thus help advance many projects in materials science. This includes designing better batteries for computers, better solar cells, and better everyday materials such as clothes and toys.
Researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Birmingham have also used quantum technology to make cold-atom lasers. These can help make even more precise atomic clocks than the ones we have today. This might help technologies such as GPS become more exact and also may help in the quest to find out more about dark matter and gravitational waves.
Finally, physicists from MIT and Harvard University have managed to build a quantum computer with 256 qubits. This is a huge milestone because, though still far away from the one million qubits we’d like to see in the future, it’s the closest we’ve yet gotten. As the number of available qubits is expected to increase exponentially, this development is another sign we might get sizable quantum computers by the end of the decade.
We can expect the record number of qubits to further increase in coming years. What’s equally exciting, though, is the advent of quantum software. At the moment, more than 90 percent of total investment in the space is taken by quantum hardware companies. At some point, though, someone will want to use all these resources, right? Like many experts, I expect that we’ll see budding breakthroughs in quantum machine learning, quantum simulation, and quantum-inspired computation in this decade. This might help make better materials, better medicine, and more accurate GPS, among other benefits.
What to Expect Going Forward
Thanks to developments in spin-locking technology, improvements in materials sciences are to be expected in the near future. This might have effects on chemical products and the manufacturing of materials. At this point in time, chemical research and engineering is largely experimental, but with the help of quantum computers, we can fine-tune the properties of a molecule without the costly process of trial-and-error.
This technology also extends to drug discovery. Pharma companies have already started hiring quantum specialists. These researchers are setting up algorithms and the necessary infrastructure to be able to simulate drug molecules and what they do in human bodies. In the future, this might help reduce time spent painstakingly probing molecules in Petri dishes and might even shorten clinical trials because of the predictive power of quantum computers.
Apart from pharma, the finance industry is poised to see large gains from quantum computing. Quantum algorithms are exceptionally good at solving optimization problems, which pervade finance. Consider, for example, an investment portfolio. Investors might want to maximize their return by choosing the exact right mix of stocks, bonds, and other financial products. At the moment, this type of problem is solved by checking each possible mix of products and calculating the return. With quantum computing, however, the solution would be similar but a lot faster. This innovation could lead to better portfolio management down the road, but also to better insurance pricing optimization and improved credit scoring. This might help investors and pension funds get better returns, insured people get a fairer price for their insurances, and many people get a more accurate credit score.
Further in the future, we can also expect substantial gains in cryptography. This is, in some ways, a double-edged sword. Quantum computers might be able to crack many of today’s passwords, but one could also use quantum computers to make important passwords even safer, such as those that protect bank accounts or sensitive health data.
In a couple of decades, then, quantum technologies might bring huge advancements across many industries. Many consumers will profit from them, but they won’t actually see much of the finer technical points. Quantum services will be deeply embedded in the products themselves, and it’s unlikely that people will be using a quantum computer in their living rooms.
Do You Need Quantum in Your Business?
If you have oversight over one or more projects in your company, you might ask whether quantum computing is for you. Assessing this question is incredibly complex, but the recommended approach goes as follows:
Should You Use Quantum Tech?
- Establish where the biggest bottlenecks are in your computing processes. If these are tasks like simulations or optimization problems, quantum computing might become useful for you.
- Assess how much eliminating this bottleneck is worth to you. This gives you an idea of the budget that you might be able to allocate to quantum and other technologies.
- Are your bottlenecks low-data problems? Quantum technology is really good at everything with small data sets. For big data, classical computers are better.
- Sometimes there’s a sub-problem that doesn’t require much data, even if the overall problem does. If so, quantum computing may be helpful for this small part. Reassess the budget you can allocate in that case.
- Is there a quantum solution available that could solve your problem? (That’s a quick Google search.) If so, how much does it cost? If there is no solution yet, how likely is it that there will be one in the near future and how much might it cost?
Of course, whether quantum computing is a good fit for one of your projects will depend on your individual situation. I’m certainly not trying to sell it to you. Nevertheless, asking these questions might help you spot opportunities before the competition does.
Change Will Be Dramatic but Will Take Time
Despite the problems that the quantum world is currently facing, such as low qubit numbers and the need for more quantum error correction, I’m quite confident that we’ll get there eventually.
Of course, problems may arise if quantum gets hyped up like AI did with people chiming into the conversation when they have no real idea about the technology behind it. Instead of putting the word “quantum” into every briefing and every product of your company, you’ll need to do your due diligence and hire people who really know what they’re talking about.
I don’t see much of this overhyping happening, however. Instead, I see some of the smartest people on the planet working on technology that might bring transformational change to many industries.
What’s peculiar about quantum, however, is that it won’t be that visible to the users. Other emerging technologies like virtual reality, the Internet of Things, or, to some extent, AI are very visible to the everyday consumer. Quantum technology, on the other hand, will be hidden deep inside the products through algorithms and cloud services.
And that’s really why quantum hype, if it came about, would be dangerous: If everyone puts “quantum” on anything remotely quantum-like — similar to what happened with crypto and Bitcoin a few years back — this risks making the industry look like a scam. Luckily for quantum tech, though, monetary investment and public interest have been massive in recent years, they have by no means been out of proportion as far as I can tell.
Still, it’s important to keep things calm and not let people hype it up too much. The danger is real. And, given the potential gains for companies, governments and citizens alike, we really don’t want quantum tech to look like a scam a few years down the road.