Quantum computing: What’s the big deal?

By Dominic Banfield, Dr Cathy Foley, Saffron Urbaniak

31 January 2020

5 minute read

Woman working on quantum computer

PhD student Georgina Carson working on a scanning tunnelling microscope which allows her to image materials at an extremely small (atomic) scale. CREDIT: The ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T)

Google claimed ‘quantum supremacy’ last year with their ‘Sycamore’ superconducting quantum computer. At CSIRO, we refer to quantum supremacy as ‘quantum advantage’. So, what is the quantum advantage and, for that matter, quantum technologies? Let us break it down for you.

What is a quantum computer?

Quantum physics explains the behaviour of the world at the smallest scale. Most computers already rely on quantum technologies such as semiconductors and laser optics. But, moving forward, a fully-fledged quantum computer will take our understanding of quantum physics to a whole new level.

Basically, a quantum represents the smallest unit of mass, energy or other physical quantity. Scientists can isolate, control and sense individual quantum particles and their properties. In a quantum computer we use these capabilities to create an entirely new form of computation.

Quantum computers won’t be that useful for watching cat videos or posting memes. But they have the potential to solve problems that are impossible on current computing systems. Researchers using large-scale quantum computers could spur breakthroughs in new medicines, urban planning, energy-efficient batteries, and even offset the energy consumed by the world’s supercomputers.

What is the quantum advantage?

Quantum advantage is the point where a quantum computer can do something that a normal computer can’t in a reasonable amount of time.

Google claims to have run a computation on their quantum processor in 200 seconds that they suggest would take 10,000 years to simulate on a normal computer. This is an amazing breakthrough for the technology, but it comes with some important caveats:

Regardless, the jury is still out on when we will see the first useful applications of quantum computing and what they will be.

How might we use a ‘supreme’ quantum computer?

Our Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley and our strategic advisory arm, CSIRO Futures, are working with Australia’s quantum technology sector to develop a roadmap for the industry. We’ve heard from researchers and start-ups exploring algorithms and applications for quantum computers.

One opportunity is the development of quantum computer algorithms to speed up machine learning and optimisation processes. Researchers are also looking to simulate the quantum interactions in chemical processes. Google’s CEO suggested simulations run on quantum computers might help identify a more sustainable way to produce ammonia fertiliser, which causes just over 1 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the truth is no one really knows what the possibilities are yet. Imagine you could go back in time before we invented computers. You would have no possible way of understanding what we use them for today.

Gold chandelier looking quantum computer

Also dubbed the steampunk chandelier, this is IBM’s Q quantum computer. Credit: Lars Plougmann

What else might this technology achieve?

Quantum computing will still take years of research and development. But we’re edging closer to harnessing transformational quantum technologies in other applications. We have been working on quantum technologies for more than 30 years making quantum sensors called SQUIDs. Our LANDTEM technology has helped describe and detect over $6 billion worth of ore bodies in Australia and overseas, including the BHP Cannington silver mine.

About 70 per cent of Australia features barren cover that obscures mineralised rocks and creates challenges for mineral exploration. Australian researchers are developing new high-precision quantum sensors for mineral exploration. This will help us discover new mineral deposits and support one of our key sectors. We could also use the same technology in defence and water resource management.

Some quantum-enhanced cybersecurity solutions are already on the market. And quantum technologies for secure communications networks are being developed. Researchers are also exploring the possibilities of creating a quantum internet that can warn you if a third party attempts to intercept your messages.

Next steps

Late last year we released a discussion paper on quantum technologies (PDF, 2.53KB). This paper considers the potential applications of quantum technologies, challenges and opportunities, and what we need to do to develop our capabilities.

Dr Foley says we’re looking to harness Australia’s excellence in quantum technology research and pave a way forward to grow the sector.

“Quantum technology can help create solutions and benefits for industry, develop new export markets and create new job opportunities, as well as help maintain our national and industry security,” she said.

“We have some of the best quantum research in the world and must continue to invest so we can lead the world.”