Quantum computing ushering in a new age of tech

Published December 1, 2022 | 3 min read

Quantum computing is set to revolutionize computer science over the next decade, bringing new opportunities but also posing new threats, according to a panel at the recent RBC Capital Markets Australian Technology Conference.

Opening up a whole new world of possibilities

Most of today’s technology - from calculators to sophisticated computer networks - is based on the classical computing model, which deals in ones and zeros (binary code). Quantum computing, on the other hand, deals in quantum bits (qubits), which can be both one and zero at the same time. This allows it to deal with many possibilities simultaneously.

 “From a computer scientist’s perspective, your cellphone, an abacus and a supercomputer are all essentially the same machine,” said Sydney Quantum Academy's Chief Executive Officer, Peter Turner. “They operate under the same principles and, given a reasonable amount of time, could do the same thing. Quantum computers are in a completely different category and operate using different principles altogether.”

Professor Stephen Bartlett, a theoretical quantum physicist and professor at the University of Sydney, explained that while quantum computing could solve different problems from classical computing, it was not necessarily quicker.

It is a common misconception that quantum computing is faster than classical computing,” he said. “It’s not actually about speed. We’ve opened up new ways of doing things and processing information. You can run new types of algorithms and use new chips in ways that you cannot do with today’s technology.”


Potential applications from finance to pharmaceuticals

RBC Capital Markets, U.S. Software Analyst, Rishi Jaluria, told the audience that quantum computing was likely to open up exciting new possibilities in many spheres, including his own.

“In financial services, you hear a lot of talk about how quantum computing can improve portfolio analytics. It could also lead to breakthroughs in [anti-money laundering] and could even completely change the way we do Monte Carlo simulations.”

Jaluria also believed there was enormous potential for quantum computing to “bring in true AI (artificial intelligence), which is more general in nature”.

“In health care, this could potentially lead to huge innovations around drug trials, by helping companies get drugs onto market without the ethical concerns of testing on humans – that’s quite amazing.”


Security the elephant in the room

But for all the potential positives, moderator Garry Sherriff, RBC Capital Markets Australia’s Lead Technology Analyst, observed that security was likely to be a major issue stemming from advances in quantum computing. Noting that the proposed applications assume goodwill and a ‘good doctor’ type of environment, he acknowledged that the reality is that people don’t behave. “So what happens if someone uses quantum computing to crack almost everything? Will there be chaos?”

Turner agreed this was a risk but noted that there were both positive and negative implications that were likely to arise.

“Quantum communications offers a gold standard when it comes to security and encryption,” he observed. “On one hand, quantum computing threatens to completely undo the whole fabric of [today’s system of technology] and allow sophisticated hacker groups to get through.”

“On the other hand, good players will be able to use quantum networks to come up with more sophisticated security protocols to ward off attacks.”

Jaluria observed that the issue of security was most likely the first one most organizations would have to face when it came to quantum computing - and that they should start considering the issue now - as it was likely things would begin to change rapidly.

“We’re going to see some useful applications emerge from quantum computing over the next five-to-10 years,” said Bartlett. “Some argue that we’ll have useful applications from the machines we’re using now, but that’s contentious.”

“The good news is that the problem of running a quantum algorithm that can crack codes is one of the most complex and difficult things you can imagine. You have a very high error rate and need a very large computer, so I don’t see that being achieved in the next decade.”


Overcoming instability

Bartlett noted that the high error rate is endemic in quantum computing at the moment and represents the main challenge to be overcome. This error rate was primarily the result of hardware issues.

“The challenge has shifted from trying to build more complex devices to bringing down the noise levels - or error rates - on devices.”

Turner observed that this stood in stark contrast to classical computers, which tended to be stable. “With quantum computing, you have a lot of atoms and electrons jiggling about and bumping into each other,” he explained. “These are the source of the errors.”

“One way we have to fix them is to bring them down to very cold temperatures – close to absolute zero.”


Universities and tech giants lead the way

When asked which companies were at the forefront of quantum computing, the panelists agreed that there wasn’t any one dominant player. The sheer magnitude of the set up costs and the level of expertise required meant leaders in quantum computing tended to be split between the global tech giants - including Google, AWS and IBM - and university-backed startups.

“Because the right platform hasn’t been determined yet, the environment is ripe for these startups. “

Given the complexities of the work these companies were undertaking, the panel agreed that it could be difficult to get a sense of which companies and technology to invest in. Turner noted the importance of relying on scientists.

“For an academic, reputation is everything. If a leading expert in the field has put their name to something, it is a sign.”

Turner stressed the importance of embedding quantum computing expertise within organizations, even for non-investors,. “An organization like SQA can help you source [for example] PhD students or interns so that you can invest modestly in order to find out what’s real and what’s not. We also run the industry facing Quantum Australia conference in February.”


Classical and quantum to grow together

Finally, the panel noted that quantum computing is unlikely to displace classical computing. Instead, it’s more likely that both will grow together. As evidence of this, Turner noted that the quantum computing community recently discovered a new algorithm that they thought might represent a major breakthrough.

“After digging into it, it turned out it there was actually a whole new classical algorithm that did the job. But it might not have ever been discovered without the quantum computing challenge,” he said. “The fields are building on each other.”