From research to real quantum computing?

May 23rd, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EE Publishers

The word “quantum” appears today in just about every article about computing and electronics. While quantum means significant and considerable, it is not just new age “mumbo-jumbo”. It underlies many of today’s most important technologies, including lasers and semiconductors found in every computer chip.

More specifically, quantum computing is a new type of computing, as IBM explains it, “All computing systems rely on a fundamental ability to store and manipulate information. Current computers manipulate individual bits, which store information as binary 0 and 1 states. Quantum computers leverage quantum mechanical phenomena to manipulate information. To do this, they rely on quantum bits, or qubits.”

There are a few different ways to create a qubit. One method uses superconductivity to create and maintain a quantum state. To work with these superconducting qubits for extended periods of time, they must be kept very cold. Any heat in the system can introduce error, which is why quantum computers operate at temperatures close to absolute zero, colder than the vacuum of space.

The quantum computing landscape

In Canada

FIg. 1: The D-Wave 2000Q system.

Quantum computing has been in the research laboratories for many years but there are now signs of moving from just research to some real-time applications. In the forefront are IBM, and D-Wave systems in Canada. According to D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell, the company has been working on quantum computing for over ten years. “There has been a considerable amount of investment, enthusiasm, and research around the potential of quantum computing. “In the past 16 years there have been 25 generations of processors.”

D-Wave’s quantum computers use a process called quantum annealing that harnesses the natural tendency of real-world quantum systems to find low-energy states. If an optimisation problem is analogous to a landscape of peaks and valleys, each coordinate represents a possible solution and its elevation represents its energy. The best solution is that with the lowest energy corresponds to the lowest point in the deepest valley in the landscape. In 2010, D-Wave released its first commercial system. In successive generations the company doubled the number of qubits in 2013. In 2017, D-Wave released a system with 2000 qubits and advanced control features. The D-Wave 2000Q system operates near absolute zero. This extremely low temperature, along with the shielded environment that isolates the QPU from its surroundings, enables the QPU to behave quantum mechanically. D-Wave systems operate at less than 15 millikelvin, approximately 180 times colder than interstellar space.

Recently, D-Wave announced its latest topology, the Pegasus, which is the most connected of any commercial quantum system available today. Currently, each qubit in the Chimera topology is connected to six other qubits. With the Pegasus topology, each qubit is connected to 15 other qubits. With two and a half times more connectivity, Pegasus enables the embedding of larger problems with fewer physical qubits than the older Chimera topology.

In the Netherlands

In contrast to D-Wave’s working system, Intel is of the opinion that quantum computing is a few more years away. However the company is supporting research at Netherlands-based QuTech, a joint effort between the Delft University of Technology and TNO, the Dutch Organisation for Applied Research. “Despite significant progress, quantum computing will take several more years to fulfil, that is why practical and theoretical research is needed now, and why we are working with industry partners and academia”, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said.

On 16 April 2019, players in the Dutch quantum ecosystem met in Utrecht to formulate the ambition of becoming the quantum technology “capital of the world”. This ambition takes shape in a National Agenda on Quantum Technologies, which intends to strengthen and firmly position the Dutch quantum field internationally with broad support from science, industry, government and society. Over 100 scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers and decision makers provided their input. Dutch universities and knowledge institutions have a leading position in the global development of quantum hardware and software, and the corresponding algorithms and applications. The Netherlands wants to maintain and expand its position as a guide in the field of quantum technology. To this end, several Dutch organisations working on quantum technology have taken the initiative to build the National Agenda on Quantum Technologies, to position the Netherlands as an international knowledge and innovation hub for quantum technology.

In South Africa

Fig. 2: Prof. Francesco Petruccione.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal has a Centre for Quantum Technology. The research group is headed by Prof. Francesco Petruccione and hosted within the School of Chemistry. In 2007 Prof. Petruccione was granted a South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication. The research group gained global recognition, when in 2008 it established one of the first secure quantum communication networks in Durban. In 2010 during the FIFA World Cup, the Moses Mabhida Stadium was connected to a central risk management centre through a state-of-the-art quantum communication system. This was the first time an event of global interest was secured through advanced quantum technologies.

The Chair has been focusing some of its research activities on the emerging field of quantum biology. In particular, the quantum effects in photosynthesis have been modelled with tools developed in the Chair. These studies are very important as they may lead to a better understanding of approaches to artificial photosynthesis leading to better renewable energy approaches.

More recently, the group became interested in applications of quantum computing. The group pioneered the development of quantum algorithms for machine learning and implemented the first quantum machine learning algorithm on one of the quantum computers available in the cloud.

Major commercial role out

At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), IBM unveiled IBM Q System One, the world’s first integrated universal approximate quantum computing system designed for scientific and commercial use. IBM also announced plans to open its first IBM Q Quantum Computation Centre for commercial clients in Poughkeepsie, New York, later this year.

IBM Q systems are designed to one day tackle problems that are currently seen as too complex and exponential in nature for classical systems to handle. Future applications of quantum computing may include finding new ways to model financial data and isolating key global risk factors to make better investments, or finding the optimal path across global systems for ultra-efficient logistics and optimising fleet operations for deliveries.

The system enables universal approximate superconducting quantum computers to operate beyond the confines of the research lab. As much as classical computers combine multiple components into an integrated architecture optimised to work together, IBM is applying the same approach to quantum

“The IBM Q System One is a major step forward in the commercialisation of quantum computing,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president of Hybrid Cloud and director of IBM Research. “This new system is critical in expanding quantum computing beyond the walls of the research lab as we work to develop practical quantum applications for business and science.”

This integrated system aims to address one of the most challenging aspects of quantum computing: continuously maintaining the quality of qubits used to perform quantum computations. Powerful yet delicate, qubits quickly lose their special quantum properties, typically within 100 microseconds (for state-of-the-art superconducting qubits), due in part to the interconnected machinery’s ambient noise of vibrations, temperature fluctuations, and electromagnetic waves. Protection from this interference is one of many reasons why quantum computers and their components require careful engineering and isolation.

The design of IBM Q System One includes a nine-foot-tall, nine-foot-wide case of half-inch thick borosilicate glass forming a sealed, airtight enclosure. A series of independent aluminium and steel frames unify, but also decouple the system’s cryostat, control electronics, and exterior casing, helping to avoid potential vibration interference that leads to “phase jitter” and qubit decoherence.

We there but not really there. Maybe Intel is right that more research and industrialisation is needed before quantum computing finds it way onto every desk!


A qubit by definition is a quantum bit which can hold both 1 and 0 at the same time. A bit can hold only either 0 or 1 at one time, Qubit can hold both 1 and 0 at the same time, so theoretically a single qubit can execute millions of processes at a single time thus making quantum computers super-fast.

There are a few different ways to create a qubit. One method uses superconductivity to create and maintain a quantum state. To work with these superconducting qubits for extended periods of time, they must be kept very cold. Any heat in the system can introduce error, which is why quantum computers operate at temperatures close to absolute zero, colder than the vacuum of space.

Quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics (QM) developed over many decades, beginning as a set of controversial mathematical explanations of experiments that the maths of classical mechanics could not explain. It began at the turn of the 20th century, around the same time that Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity, a separate mathematical revolution in physics that describes the motion of things at high speeds. Unlike relativity, the origins of QM cannot be attributed to any one scientist. Rather, multiple scientists contributed to a foundation of three revolutionary principles that gradually gained acceptance and experimental verification between 1900 and 1930:

  • Quantised properties: Certain properties, such as position, speed and colour, can sometimes only occur in specific, set amounts, much like a dial that “clicks” from number to number. This challenged a fundamental assumption of classical mechanics, which said that such properties should exist on a smooth, continuous spectrum. To describe the idea that some properties “clicked” like a dial with specific settings, scientists coined the word “quantized”.
  • Particles of light: Light can sometimes behave as a particle. This was initially met with harsh criticism, as it ran contrary to 200 years of experiments showing that light behaved as a wave; much like ripples on the surface of a calm lake. Light behaves similarly in that it bounces off walls and bends around corners, and that the crests and troughs of the wave can add up or cancel out. Added wave crests result in brighter light, while waves that cancel out produce darkness. A light source can be thought of as a ball on a stick being rhythmically dipped in the centre of a lake. The colour emitted corresponds to the distance between the crests, which is determined by the speed of the ball’s rhythm.
  • Waves of matter: Matter can also behave as a wave. This ran counter to the roughly 30 years of experiments showing that matter (such as electrons) exists as particles.

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