Episode 3: Quantum Computing

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Transcript of Audio:

Hello and welcome to episode 3 of Three Deviations Out.  If you haven’t been following along, I’m Amanda and I love outliers.  I have a passionate belief that outliers of any kind are the sparks of this world, good or bad.  Like a bit of sriracha on literally almost anything, they make life a little spicier.  Last week we talked about blockchain and how it is so much more than a digital currency for drug traffickers and people with weird fetishes.  This week we’re going to talk about quantum computing; the tech, the players, the impact.  First, let’s start with the key points:

What: Quantum computing is the idea that using quantum bits, qubits, instead of regular binary bits a user can take advantage of unique attributes of electrons when they become entangled and are in superposition. It’s alright if you didn’t understand some or a number of the words in that last sentence, I didn’t either when I first started looking into this technology.  We’ll be going over the various quantum properties here in a minute.

Who: IBM, D-Wave, Google, Accenture, Atos, Rigetti Computing, NASA, The Republic of China, Russia, The University of New South Wales, and every researcher who has committed their lives to studies that further quantum theory including Albert Einstein, who first noted quantum properties of small particles, and Erwin Schrödinger, well known for his famous cat.

Why: Quantum computers have the potential to be highly influential in operational efficiency, chemical calculation, and machine learning.  To put that in perspective, those three areas cover nearly all aspects of computing outside of productivity applications and web browsing.  Not to say that quantum computing won’t influence the Internet.  You just won’t use a quantum processor browsing for kitchen supplies on Amazon.  Everything from climate change and world hunger to cancer research and the eradication of disease could be addressed through the power of quantum processors.  That is why I see quantum computing as an outlier.  This is a technology that could exponentially advance our society in ways that only a handful of major technological breakthroughs in recorded human history have.

Okay.  So, now that everyone knows exactly what quantum computing is and how to use it and how to code while taking superposition into account, let’s get into the complicated stuff.  Raise your hand if you have any questions.  None?  Great, let’s move on.  I will warn you that in the support there will be fewer use cases and less hard evidence than I was able to present with blockchain, simply because on the product development cycle quantum computing is an infant while blockchain is more of an adolescent.  Keeping that in mind I want to hit a few points:

  • How it works
  • The differences in hardware/GTM approaches
  • Potential implications
  • Use cases: Things we’ve seen so far
  • The weird stuff, because yes, it does get weirder
  • Idealized world in Amanda’s head

The first thing I’ll note is that in the great scheme of things, quantum processors are not an outlier.  Like, if we look at all of human history this is what we tend to do.  We develop tools that make our lives easier or enable us to do things faster.  The impact any of those tools has is its ability to scale and the amount of people it touches.  Last week I compared blockchain to the widespread adoption of the printing press.  Quantum is more similarly associated to the widespread adoption of agriculture.  Yeah sure, foraging for berries and hunting antelope with spears got the job done but isn’t it just so much easier to sit back feeding this cow hay until its big enough to eat?  Calculations that would have taken hundreds of years on a classical (binary) computer, even one that would be considered a supercomputer, would take days, hours, or even minutes with a quantum computer that has reached supremacy.  Supremacy is the ability of a quantum computer to outperform the highest functioning classical computer, thought to be reached at 50 qubits.  Google has pledged to have a 50-qubit processor by the end of 2017, and a research group led by Harvard professor Mikhail Lunkin announced in June they were the first to build at 51-qubit universal quantum processor.

How it Works:

Quantum entanglement is a property that occurs when the attributes of one particle gives information about the attributes of another particle.  This is important because the nature of quantum particles means that observing them implicitly changes them.  Using this theory, we can say that a particle both is and is not any given thing at any given time. This idea, that a particle could exist in multiple states at once, is superposition.  So, the exchange of the information about particle attributes is entanglement and the idea that these particles exist in multiple states at once is superposition.  Both of these states need to be achievable for a quantum computer to function, along with a number of other variables.  When these states are reached with a quantum processor, the hardware is able to do exponentially more calculations at once than a traditional computer with the equivalent number of bits due to the two properties we just discussed.  Consider it this way: A traditional bit thinks in binary which is either one or zero.  A qubit can consider either one or zero or one and zero all at the same time.  These properties are influential across a number of applications including cryptography, telecommunications, teleportation of photons and the decentralized internet, but today we will mostly stick to processors.

Differences in hardware/GTM approaches:

There are a number of quantum computing companies that span services, hardware, and software.  Today I will be featuring IBM, D-Wave, and Rigetti Computing because these are the companies I am familiar with.  If you are interested in other quantum computing companies and you think I should know about them please feel free to leave a comment.  If you are part of an effort working on some aspect of quantum computing and want to talk shop, I’d love to.  Because of the depth and overall newness of this topic I expect I will cover it more than once and would love to have guests next time.  IBM, D-Wave, and Rigetti are all in the quantum processor business but each approach both hardware and GTM in different ways.

D-Wave currently has a 2,000-qubit version of its annealing processor available for the low low price of $15M with an open source quantum language, Qbsolv, available on Github.  The company currently only offers an on-premises hardware option with cloud access available in certain instances, but not for public use.  An annealing computer is a type of quantum processor that solves a very finite set of problems.  Also, instead of harnessing the power of quantum mechanics it is instead just along for the ride.  Essentially it is like the difference in using a broken horse to plow a field or trying to hook a wild mustang up to the plow and make that work.

IBM is working with a slightly different GTM and hardware approach.  Big Blue currently has two versions of their universal quantum computer, a 16-qubit available for public use and a 17-qubit for only commercial use.  Both are available over the cloud and don’t worry, you don’t have to learn to code in quantum just yet.  The company has built an API that allows you to develop in Python directly on the quantum platform, and there is a growing community on Github using the curated tool kit.  However, if you did happen to be interested in learning a quantum language IBM may not be the place for you as their root language code has not yet been open sourced.  As far as I am aware IBM has not commercialized a hardware package, making their quantum processor only available on the cloud.

Finally, Rigetti Computing is like the cooler younger sibling of the quantum computing heavy hitters.  The company started only a few years ago, going through Y Combinator Startup School, and now resides in a warehouse in Berkeley CA.  Offering quantum computing through the cloud, Rigetti has both a Python based API and an open source quantum language called Quil for their beta program, Forest 1.0.  Users are able to build and simulate algorithms on 30 qubits along with running them on an actual quantum chip.  The company has developed 8 qubit chips as of August 2017 and are using a new two-qubit gate scheme making the abilities of the chip more scalable than previous iterations.  Rigetti is currently working with universal quantum chips, the most powerful type of quantum processor.

Potential implications:

I want to preface this section of the recording by saying that quantum computing is still in its infancy especially when compared to technology like microchip processors.  So, while potential implications are well researched, they are well researched only to the extent that a technology until the last few years existed only in peer reviewed papers can be well researched.  With that asterisk, I will say that the potential of quantum computing is large.  What we’ve seen so far is that the technology is able to more effectively calculate operational and chemical algorithms than classical computers.  Operational calculations span from traffic optimization to supply chain to law enforcement enablement algorithms.  Chemical calculations include determining the best way to influence climate change, how to best grow and distribute crops to influence global hunger, and genome sequencing that could influence any number of disease prevention.  This is because, according to Andrea Morello, “the number of operations it takes to get to a result is exponentially smaller”. That means that any large variable algorithm, any you can think of, can be made faster and more effective with quantum computers.  The concept becomes difficult because there is little testing and real-world application to the theory, but as you will discover in Amanda’s idealized world I think the potential is high.

Something quantum computers will be great for and have already proven the ability to do is break encryption.  The basis of most encryption is factoring using enough variables that classical computers could never brute force their way in.  Quantum computers however have very different calculation approaches through the superposition attribute.  Encryption of today would be and currently is no problem for a quantum computer.  In fact, quantum processors have already solved Shor’s algorithm, a factoring algorithm that cannot be solved by classical computers and was comparatively a breeze for a quantum processor.  What this means is that current encryption is useless with quantum processor availability.  And because there are quantum cloud offerings, barriers to entry of achieving encryption breaking techniques does not include the steep prices of hardware.  There are companies such as Post-Quantum and ISARA Corporation that are attempting to safe guard from potential quantum attacks.  So far there has yet to be a hack that is specifically attributed to quantum decryption but I only have public knowledge available to me.  If you know differently I would love to hear about it, please reach out through my contact page, comments, or the number of social accounts I have.  For now, the best approach I recommend is try your darnedest to go post-quantum as quickly as possible if you consider yourself a high-level target.  Otherwise, I don’t see wide scale quantum hacking in the ilk of WannaCry or other massive malware to happen soon.  For all our sakes let’s hope I’m right.

Another area where quantum computing has potential impact is the field of Artificial Intelligence.  Some humans may find this terrifying but personally I find it enthralling.  I’ll spend an entire episode on AI but I’ll take a minute now to cover some of the things that have been accomplished already before getting into how quantum will influence the space.  Most people know Watson, Siri, and Alexa.  These are all artificial intelligence programs that, I don’t know about you, but the humans I know talk about as if they are people themselves.  Instead of calling Siri ‘it’ she is referenced as a female.  There is the sentiment about wanting to ‘meet’ Watson, as if you could actually shake his hand.  Beyond the programs whose names we know, there are the robo-dials that are oh so common now, an artificial intelligence program meant to speak over the phone often as a cold call salesperson or customer support.  AI does more than just talk to us though.  There are new methods of sleep study that use AI to be more effective, along with medical treatment, handwriting and facial recognition, journalism, and creativity.  I know that sounds farfetched but just check out the piano piece in the link below built by an AI.  AI uses deep learning to understand the complex theory and neural networks designed to ‘think’ like the human brain.  Quantum has the potential to increase exponentially the amount of information an AI program can process at a time because its very nature is processing and understanding variables.  Being able to run more variables that can have more cross-relationships across the network will only increase the efficiency of machine learning, giving us humans more effective and efficient machines that can make decisions better than we can in almost innumerable fields.  We will see the first great novel written by an AI program, and it won’t be uncommon to see an AI program on a corporate or philanthropic board.  Many knew the AI revolution was coming, and in some ways, it has already snuck into our lives.  Quantum computing is just speeding up that integration, and in my opinion, that is just fantastic.

The last area I will touch on is operational efficiency which you already know from last week is a personal favorite of mine, mostly because I’m lazy and don’t want to exert any extra energy if I don’t have to.  Quantum computing has already shown a few uses in operational efficiency that reach beyond potential into the real world.  Operational algorithms are perfect for quantum computing because they start out with a lot of variables and try to define every conceivable relationship between any of those variables to create the most optimized process.  Because quantum computing is able to define relationships between variables by the qubits equaling 1, 0, and 1 or 0 at the same time, those variable relationships can be determined much quicker to allow for some significant real-life applications.  One of the use cases we will be getting into revolve around this idea of operational efficiency in real time, and allow for better use of a human’s resources to get a job done because there are fewer or more effective steps in the process than there were before.

Use cases:

So, on that note we will get into those use cases I talked about.  We’ll be covering two today:

  • Real time traffic route optimization
  • Unsupervised machine learning

D-Wave and Volkswagen teamed up to understand how quantum computing could influence traffic route optimization, a process with a high number of variables that change at a high rate. Using a dataset of 418 taxis en route to the Beijing airport, the team built an algorithm of 1,254 logical variables to represent the problem and optimized by running a hybrid classical/quantum solution.  Before the optimization was run there was a relatively small number of routes being taken with heavy congestion on nearly all.  Correcting for queue wait times, the researchers concluded that with a dedicated D-Wave quantum annealing processor the route optimization could be run in 22 seconds across 50 randomized routes to clear congestion for the 418 vehicles on their way to the airport.  The amount of time needed to complete the problem is expected to diminish as the number of qubits in a machine increase.  The group of researchers plans to continue their work in traffic optimization with quantum, as well as understanding other real-world applications of quantum processing technology, so keep your eyes peeled and I will try to keep you as up to date as possible.

In the first quarter of 2017, four researchers at Los Alamos University tested the influence of quantum annealing on machine learning.  The researchers tested their hypothesis, that matrix factorizations are more efficient with quantum chips than classical chips, on D-Wave hardware.  They tested their experiment both on the D-Wave quantum annealer as well as two different classical computers.  Each processor was attempting to process 10, 100, and 1,000 faces across a number of tests to develop a facial recognition program.  After all tests were run the team concluded that while the quantum processor was better at very fast solutions, the ability for it to actually reach those solutions were sporadic and while many times were very fast there was a large variability of time with some processing tests taking up to 10 minutes. The classical computers on the other hand were at times slower than the quantum processor but were more consistent in processing time across all tests.  The group concluded by saying that there was really no clear winner because while a modification to the calculation had the potential to make the classical computer quicker, they also noted the relative immaturity of quantum technology and that with work both on the algorithm used and the D-Wave hardware speed and consistency could be improved.

There you have it, two very technical use cases of quantum computing. Most at the moment are being reported in peer-reviewed papers, so sites like arxiv.org are great for browsing if you are interested in keeping up to date on new quantum use cases.  If you know of any other use cases that have been tested, please comment about them I would love to learn more.  In the meantime, I will try to keep you up to date on the latest articles both here and through my Twitter feed, @greaterthanxbar.

The weird stuff:

The concept of quantum computing is already kind of weird, with the idea that particles can communicate with each other and be in any number of places at the same time.  However, these qualities allow for much weirder things than just quantum computing.  Three such technologies include quantum teleportation, quantum communication, and the quantum Internet.

Quantum teleportation relies heavily on the attribute of entanglement.  Currently experiments and tests have been successful in teleporting photons of light across long distances.  A hang up with quantum teleportation is that quantum energy is easily disrupted and moving through the relatively dense and noisy air of the planet means a photon can only go so far before it’s distracted.  A research group associated with the Republic of China has recently tried to subvert this distance challenge by launching a satellite designed specifically for use in quantum mechanics and bouncing the entangled photons off of that.  This allowed the photons to travel 870 miles, decimating the previous record of just over 60 miles.  Granted, this test is just proof of concept and you won’t be making the daily commute Star Trek style anytime soon but the relatively quick growth in the technology is exciting nonetheless.

Quantum communication, while similar to teleportation in that it relies on entanglement properties and light photons, is a bit more approachable.  In fact, it is being implemented in Jinan, Beijing, and Shanghai as China strives to be a global leader in next gen tech.  The most prominent driver of quantum communication is the security benefits that come from the quantum attributes.  Because quantum states are fragile, if a communication is intercepted the state is interrupted and this change can be seen by any user with access, revealing the invader.  There are also technologies such as quantum key distribution that are considered post-quantum security measures.  So, while quantum communication operates on fiber like boring ol’ telecom of today, the implications it could have on secure communication in a quantum world could be far reaching.

The last weird thing we’ll talk about, besides what goes on in my brain, is quantum internet.  I’m not going to spend a ton pf time here because, like AI, in a few weeks I’ll be spending an entire episode on how this and a number of other technologies can join forces to build a new and better Internet.  You heard that right, this isn’t just something that happens on hilarious tech sitcoms.  For now I’ll keep it short and simple.  Right now, the internet uses radio waves to send information around the world.  A quantum internet would use quantum signals through a network of entangled particles.  This has implications in the speed of quantum processing over the cloud and increasing the security of sensitive data.  You won’t be using it for everything though, like listening to this podcast or checking out Trump’s latest social media blunder.  Estimates state a global network will be functional by 2030.

My Idealized World:

There are still a lot of things we don’t know about how quantum computing could change our lives and disrupt problems written off as unanswerable.  There are few applications written for quantum computers and even fewer programmers who develop directly in a quantum language.  Universal quantum processors have only reached supremacy with a few research groups so far, though I expect more will follow soon.  To me, the things I’ve seen accomplished in testing and what I know about the underlying hardware and theory is enough to convince me of the potential merits.  As I see it, quantum processors will begin uncovering answers to both every day and global problems.  Not too long from now you may have an app on your phone being fed traffic advice translated from a quantum computer.  Or you may find that the weather forecasts you see are both more accurate and more detailed.  A drug commercial may come on the television and you note the striking lack of side effects because chemical compositions will be able to be synthesized more effectively.  Changes will at first be small, because often those problems will be the easiest to solve and implement.  Not long after that though you’ll see both private companies and public institutions using the technology to unlock the secrets of everything from how best to solve world hunger to the most effective strategies of war.

That’s all for today folks.  I hope it was informative and enjoyable.  Leave any comments, questions, concerns, or corrections in the section at the bottom of the page.  Next week we talk about millennials and their relationship with technology.  Disclaimer: I’m one of them.

Have a greater than average week!