Here is an update on where we are on the research front of making quantum computers a practical, accessible reality…

Quantum computing promises efficiency in processing power. The ability to process much more information opens up the possibility to drive complex fundamental research, optimization, information technology and pharmaceutics pursuits, beyond what we ever imagined possible.

Quantum computers are able to solve hard optimization problems much faster and enable us to tackle concerns that are completely out of reach today, compared to the capabilities of classical computing resources. This would enable us to calculate things we have never been able to understand before, such as the formation of proteins, or the complex behavior of financial systems. 

In communications, quantum technology promises greater security, but due to stringent performance requirements, the tech is more susceptible to environmental effects. Creating secure quantum repeaters is a major challenge, so quantum communications networks are still just a blip in the future.

In cybersecurity, a powerful quantum computer could potentially break existing encryption protocols that rely on factoring large numbers, such as RSA-based encryption protocols. Right now, there is no classical computer or algorithm that can do this within a reasonable amount of time—and so we have the opportunity to develop completely new types of encryption to keep information safe. A large challenge remains: creating security protocols that are impenetrable to both classical and quantum computers. 

From niche to mainstream

The unique sensitivity of quantum systems to their environment makes it difficult to control performance with a high degree of accuracy. Because of this, quantum computers are still very basic (consisting of only tens of quantum bits or qubits). Computations we can perform with such small qubit systems are often inaccurate.

To take quantum computing from its niche existence to the mainstream, we need to learn how to isolate quantum systems from their environment and control them to a much higher degree of accuracy. This means we need to scale up the system to hundreds of millions of qubits.

Overcoming the error problem in quantum computations will come through innovation in quantum computing hardware and software. More research is needed to understand the error processes that occur in quantum systems, and how to build hardware that is more resilient towards those errors.

At the same time, advances in software and how we implement certain algorithms are needed as we hit the physical limits of chip manufacturing capabilities.

In addition to the state-of-the art quantum computing technologies, there are several highly-anticipated proposals for new types of quantum computing hardware such as ‘photonic quantum computers’—quantum computers based on neutral atoms.

Researchers across the field are also working hard on developing algorithms that can boost the performance of noisy, intermediate-scale quantum computers to achieve quantum computing breakthroughs sooner.

Ready in 10 years?

With quantum computing start-ups and IT industry giants organizing major quantum computing efforts around the world, we could conceivably be looking at a 10-year timescale for quantum computing implementation.

That is if we solve the error problem in quantum computing. If we do not, efforts may need to be refocused on narrower goals such as building quantum simulators that solve targeted problems, rather than on building general-purpose quantum computers.  

However, as soon as the technology becomes viable and successfully implemented, many previously unsolvable problems and global challenges are likely to become as small as qubits.