Quantum leaps needed for new computer approach
- By George Leopold
- Dec 09, 2016
Quantum computing researchers and practitioners, including the chief scientist at the nation's largest military contractor, say the technology holds great promise in areas such as cybersecurity and cryptography, along with emerging areas like software testing required for multi-billion dollar weapons.
As incremental performance gains from traditional digital computing architectures prove harder to achieve, researchers are turning to quantum computers that encode information as quantum bits, or qubits, rather than binary 0s and 1s. While major performance gains have so far proved elusive, researchers stressed this week that the quantum technology has far more upside as prototypes are built and a technology ecosystem emerges.
"We’re starting to reach the tipping point for investing in this technology," Landon Downs, co-founder of quantum software startup 1Qbit told a panel this week hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Among the largest investors in quantum computing is Lockheed Martin Corp., whose quantum science program goes back two decades. The company was one of the first to invest in the technology, purchasing the first D-Wave Systems quantum computer in 2010. Ned Allen, the company's chief scientist, said the company invested about $15 million to "mess with" the D-Wave One machine, eventually using for its "verification and validation" (V&V) program used to test mission critical software.
With software accounting for about half the cost of control systems used on advanced weapons like the F-35 fighter, Allen noted that the D-Wave machine was integrated into its engineering processes as a "co-processor" in hopes of reducing the skyrocketing cost of spotting errors in software that must work flawlessly.
The stakes for weapon testing are enormous, Allen added, with verification and validation costs running as high as $50 million a day when running flight simulations used to debug software. Those costs are what convinced the company to turn to quantum computing as a way of managing software testing costs.
A sample problem involved searching for an error in a 30-year-old chunk of software code for the F-16 fighter. It took the company's top engineers several months to pinpoint the error; the D-Wave machine found it in six weeks.
"Quantum computers are not going to be used in isolation," Allen said, but instead would be applied to parts of the software validation problem they are best suited for. Other potential applications include "classical analytics" along with quantum imaging for sonar and radar systems, Allen said.
The company also is using quantum computing for a battery technology development that would store entropy rather than energy, an approach Allen said could yield energy densities orders of magnitude higher than conventional batteries.
Ultimately, Allen predicted, hybrid-computing platforms will emerge that leverage quantum co-processors.
Meanwhile, a quantum-computing ecosystem continues to expand, including a research platform released by IBM in May that has already attracted about 33,000 users. The cloud-based system is "the beginnings of a quantum community," predicted Robert Wisnieff, a quantum researcher at IBM's Watson Research Center. Quantum software startups like 1Qbit are meanwhile working to optimize machine language along with existing programming languages to run on emerging quantum hardware. "The first applications [for quantum computing] are being developed today," 1Qbit's Downs said.
Another hurdle is having actual quantum platforms to work with, noted Tim Polk, assistant director for cyber-security with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The IBM quantum system in the cloud addressed that gap, Polk said. "We need to be able to walk before we run," he added, noting that quantum demonstrators would lead to more complex applications.
Another parallel between digital and quantum computing is that the potential of the former was not fully appreciated in the 1960s. "We see the same type of potential now for quantum computing," Polk added.
Despite that optimism, Polk warned that the U.S. lead in quantum research is "under siege" from research efforts in Canada, Europe and China. For example, a Chinese satellite launched this past summer dubbed "Quantum Experiments at Space Scale" seeks to demonstrate hack-proof satellite communications based on the ephemeral properties of quantum physics, including the mysterious phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.
Indeed, Wisnieff of IBM noted that Chinese researchers are making heavy use of the company's cloud-based quantum platform.