Sydney and the quantum supercomputers

What if there was a supercomputer that could find a way to allow electricity to be transmitted without resistance – like a fibre optic cable – thereby providing a vast reservoir of additional power around the world?

Or indeed a computer that could allow ammonium-based fertiliser to be produced without its current impact on the world’s energy supply, estimated to be around five per cent of natural gas supply.

 Or even find another habitable planet somewhere in the universe, through having the sheer power to analyse the incredible amount of data coming from these planets.

 These are some of the science fiction-like possibilities of quantum computing, which was described during recent Sydney forum as being “a different universe in computing”.

  • Dr Joanna Batstone, VP and Lab Director for IBM Research Australia and Chief Technology Officer for IBM Australia & NZ (moderator)

  • Michael Biercuk, University of Sydney – Quantum physicist and Director of the Quantum Control Laboratory

  • Guilherme Tosi, University of New South Wales – Postdoctoral Research Associate

  • Hugh Harley, PwC – Financial Services Leader, Global Emerging Markets

  • Christopher Hess, Lockheed Martin – In-Country Manager, Global Supply Chain Program

Potential applications of technology

 Guilherme Tosi told the forum that quantum computing had wide potential applications in cryptology (that is code-writing and breaking), chemistry, artificial intelligence, big data and product optimisation.

He said the big difference between quantum computing and current computers was that a classical computer chip bit can only record a zero or one, while a quantum ‘qubit’ records both one and zero at the same time – giving it an incredible additional level of power and processing.

In mathematical terms, this means that four qubits have four times the power of four traditional computer bits – and the power only increases exponentially the more qubits you have.

Quantum computing a “different universe”

Hugh Harley said Australia was a world leader in quantum computing and it was time to “double down” on the technology as a national priority.

“Quantum computing doesn’t just represent an order of magnitude difference when it comes to computing, we are talking about an entirely different universe,” he said.

He said the conversation about the development of technology however also needed to include a broad range of voices, including philosophers, moralists, lawyers and ethicists.

“It is the responsibility of all of us, to bring the conversation together,” he said.

“The digital revolution is already changing the way that economies operate – how will all of this play through to the whole eco-system and labour market.”

Potential energy revolution

Michael Biercuk said the technology had the potential to find a way to allow electrons to flow without resistance, like a fibre optic cable.

He said this could mean you would no longer need to build power plants near cities, meaning a massive efficiency boost in the use of electricity around the world.

He compared classical and quantum computers by saying that classical computers might be able to analyse the height and colour of a large pile of sand and even sculpt the pile.

But he said a quantum computer may be able to analyse every individual grain of sand within the pile.

My impression of the event’s speakers was that the development of this potentially incredible technology remains at a relatively early stage and the potential applications of the technology have yet to be fully considered (or alternatively have been considered but not fully explained).

At this stage, the physicists are building the machine – but exactly where the machine could take us (and what limits should be placed on the use of the machine) are not clear.

It is no surprise, in this emerging environment, that major companies such as IBM and Lockheed Martin, along with US intelligence agencies, are taking a very close interest in the technology.

Sydney set to be nation’s capital for quantum computing

Another take-home message was that Sydney is set to be the nation’s capital when it comes to quantum computing, and what’s more is emerging as a world leader in field.

In September, the Australian Government announced it was contributing $25 million over five years to develop a quantum computing integrated circuit here in Sydney.

This followed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull opening the university’s quantum computing laboratory complex in April.

In October, the University of New South Wales announced it had developed a qubit which could remain in a stable position for ten times longer than previously achieved.

When announcing the $25 million funding, Australian Industry Minister Greg Hunt said: “Quantum computing is expected to revolutionise the use of information technology and data, as quantum computers can solve in minutes or hours problems that would take conventional computers – even supercomputers – centuries.”

This article was originally published at Silicon Sydney.

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