A new technological frontier

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the next technological frontier.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: By now you’ve probably heard a lot about up-and-coming technologies like 5G cellular networks and artificial intelligence. But there’s another technology that some scientists say could revolutionize how we solve problems: quantum computers.

These machines aren’t just another improvement in processing speed or software. They’re a completely new kind of computer. And now the international community is racing to build the first operational prototype.

Here’s WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg. 

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: In order to understand why quantum computers are a big deal, we have to begin with a bit of a science lesson. 

To help, here’s MIT professor Seth Lloyd. He’s been working on quantum computers for the past three decades. 

LLOYD: So a quantum computer is a computer that operates using the laws of quantum mechanics, and the laws of quantum mechanics are strange and counterintuitive.

Right now, computers solve problems using a series of 0s and 1s. Now, picture the 0s and 1s as two sides of a coin: heads or tails. A flipped coin always lands on one side or the other. 

LLOYD: And digital computation is just doing a whole bunch of bit flipping, moving electrons around from here to there in a systematic fashion. 

Seth Lloyd says here’s where quantum computers get strange. To put it very simply, as a quantum computer solves a problem, its electrons can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. Or, back to the coin analogy, the electrons are heads and tails at the same time—like a coin spinning in the air. These electrons are called quantum bits. 

LLOYD: The weirdness in quantum mechanics is a single electron doesn’t have to be either here, zero, or, there, one. It can be here and there at the same time. 

That state is called quantum parallelism. Quantum parallelism lets the computer solve 2 +2 and 3+1 at the same time with the exact same electrons. 

LLOYD: And it turns out that this quantum parallelism allows you to solve quite a few problems that are very hard for classical computers and do it much more efficiently if you could build them. And consequently people are interested in building quantum computers.

By harnessing the chaos of millions of quantum bits, scientists believe computers will be able to operate highly sophisticated models. Models today’s computers can’t touch.

Pharmaceutical companies could use quantum computers to run drug simulations at the molecular level. Economists could use them to forecast global financial markets. 

MIT’s Seth Lloyd says all these applications have private companies investing millions of dollars in developing quantum computers. 

LLOYD: There’s Google, IBM, and a startup called Righetti, which is also doing very well. And then there are a whole bunch of other startups trying out different things.

But there’s one application above all the rest that’s got governments throwing billions at these machines: their potential ability to break codes.

Prem Kumar is a professor of electrical and computer engineering and physics at Northwestern University. He says right now, online security depends on the difficulty of factoring large numbers into primes. Classical computers can do the task, but it takes way too much time. Quantum computers can factor millions of times faster. 

KUMAR: Anyone who builds a quantum computer first could potentially attack ecommerce or public key infrastructure. Everything is done electronically these days, and then those systems could be attacked.

On the flip side, whoever has a quantum computer could also have unhackable quantum communication networks. That’s because when an outside hacker tampers with a quantum bit, it’s thrown out of orbit. That makes it impossible to read the bit’s information. 

Kumar says that’s why governments want this technology so badly.

KUMAR: You want to do things in a way that either you’re the first to build the quantum computer or you make sure that nobody else will have it.

By 2017, one report says governments around the world had spent more than $2 billion on quantum computer research in just three years. Then, last year, the European Union, the UK, Canada, and Singapore dedicated an additional combined $2 billion to research. 

But the U.S. and China are outpacing them all. Last December, President Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act. It commits an additional $1.2 billion over five years to quantum research. China has set aside $10 billion

Kumar says so far, no one has produced a fully functioning quantum computer. That’s still years out. 

KUMAR: It has turned out over the years that building quantum computers is hard. 

As the science progresses, the stakes are getting higher. Fred Chong is a computer science professor at the University of Chicago. He also runs a government-funded quantum computing project called EPiQC. 

Chong says China has been making significant progress. In 2016, it launched the world’s first quantum communication satellite. And this summer, Beijing claimed it successfully used quantum communication over 1,200 kilometers. Chong says the renewed U.S. spending on quantum computers comes at a pivotal time. 

CHONG: It now provides some consistency to the level of funding that we can expect for this kind of work. And that is really important for training a pipeline of students and engineers to support this technology in the future.

But Northwestern’s Prem Kumar says the United States still has a large technological lead. And what will ultimately give the United States its edge is the free flow of ideas. 

KUMAR: Let the free market do it’s thing. I’m not concerned.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(metamorworks via Getty Images)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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