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The quantum promise

One of today's most promising emerging technologies is quantum computing. It’s so new, in fact, most people don't yet understand how it can improve the government’s efficiency and national security. But it’s showing enough promise that the Trump administration’s latest budget request included funding for quantum computing as it relates to the U.S. exascale computing program.

To get a sense of what quantum computing offers, GCN spoke with Bob Sorenson, vice president of research and technology and chief analyst for quantum computing at Hyperion Research. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

Let’s start at the top: What is quantum computing?

There’s so much confusion and mystery about what the quantum phenomena is and how it works. The best way to address it is to say that what quantum computing brings to the table is the ability to generate new kinds of algorithms, new kinds of applications and new kinds of use cases to solve problems that heretofore were unsolvable on traditional, binary-digit Von Neumann computer architectures.

What’s drawing attention to it now?

The development of the hardware has been going on for a number of years -- I would say certainly more than a decade -- and there was lots of interest as far as what quantum processes could be used for. For a long time, it was in some sense a solution looking for a problem. People were playing around with quantum hardware, but the simple idea, “OK, what do we do with this from a compute standpoint?” was a head-scratcher.

In the last few years we’ve seen an emergence in quantum computing hardware, but also in counterpart development -- in applications research, in algorithm research that asks how we can generate interesting algorithms that could be turned into applications and use cases that change the state of play in attacking some of the more interesting compute problems around the world.

Such as?

For years, the standard quantum computing algorithm that people rallied around was this idea of Schor’s algorithm, which was fundamentally a process whereby you could take a very large number that was a product of two prime numbers. You didn’t know what the two initial prime numbers were, but you basically could factor it.

 For a traditional computer, that’s a really, really hard task. As the numbers get big, the factoring gets really hard, and you could actually have processes whereby it would take hundreds of thousands of years on the fastest computer in the world to factor a number that big. That’s why those kinds of large numbers are the basis for a lot of encryption technology that’s being used out in the world today -- because to break the encryption, you have to do this factoring.

Now, quantum comes along, and this Schor’s algorithm offers a way to factor that number orders of magnitude faster than would ever be possible on a traditional computer. That presented an interesting algorithm, an interesting use case for quantum from a cryptographic standpoint, and that’s what drove quantum development for, say, the last 10 years.

What can government IT managers do to ease into quantum computing?

Get involved in some of the research and development work and perhaps work with the commercial sector to help really define the directions that quantum computing development takes. We’re not looking at, say, the IRS buying a quantum computer next month in order to review tax returns more quickly. Those kinds of end-use applications are years away.

Are any agencies using it now?

Within the Department of Energy, there’s lots of R&D going on. Oak Ridge National Lab has a pretty aggressive quantum computing development program, and the Department of Energy Office of Science writ large is also looking at quantum. There have been some large position papers, if you will, coming out of the executive branch.

So, it’s getting underway.

There’s lots of work going on out there, and as I said, it’s all very nascent. The concern I have is there’s a lot of hype out there right now about what quantum can accomplish, and we’re not even in the wild west stages yet. I think we’re maybe five years away from justifying this as wild west.

I think what we need to do is understand that this is a nascent technology. The hardware field is pretty wide open right now, and it remains to be seen how many interesting algorithms and applications can be gleaned from what’s available. There’s a lot of promise, but it’s still based on a lot of optimism and a lot of hope that interesting things will happen.

What elevator speech could an IT official give to an agency executive to get support for quantum?

You’ve got to get the best tools into the hands of the U.S. industrial base in order for it to remain economically competitive, which, of course is good in terms of national security concerns as well. To do that, you need to take some risks on some interesting far-reaching technologies, and quantum is right now one of the most promising out there.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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