There's very little that is certain in the future of quantum computing and its related fields other than that it will truly be disruptive. Many engineers working in the applied world of quantum have made predictions about the seismic changes it has the potential to bring about, but even they aren't sure of the use cases and applications that will emerge once quantum computing becomes truly viable.
A leaked Google memo in 2019 brought quantum computing roaring into the media spotlight, with (perhaps premature) conviction that Alphabet was close to reaching 'quantum supremacy' – the moment where quantum machines can outpace traditional forms of computing.
Whatever Google is working on behind closed doors in the fields of quantum, we can be dead sure that the company is taking it incredibly seriously, as are its commercial competitors at IBM, Amazon and Microsoft.
Geopolitically, there is the potential for research into quantum to absolutely dwarf the well-publicised, ongoing supercomputing arms race. A leap into working quantum computing would provide the edge for whatever nation had developed it, allowing them to effectively break encryption and intercept communications as we know them.
"The first working quantum computer, I can almost guarantee it will not be announced, because whoever has got it will become the master of the universe," Andersen Cheng, founder of Post Quantum tells Computerworld. "They could crack bitcoin, they can empty all the wallets, they can intercept all the communications between the UK and the US, and so on.
"Why would they want to tell the world? Information supremacy is what all the nation states are striving for."
Cheng, who sold information warfare, surveillance, counter-terrorism, and interception business TRL to aerospace and defence multinational L3, believes this is not hyperbole, and that it's worth drawing the distinction between the commercially viable quantum machines and quantum machines built by governments.
"Strangely, the US is lagging behind," says Cheng, "believe it or not."
"In the commercial world you have Microsoft, Google, IBM, Intel, they're all building quantum computers – and you have some quantum startups building their own quantum computers – so in the commercial world, they are ahead, but in the government world, they're not."
This is why President Donald Trump signed a US$1.2 billion law to invest in quantum technology in late 2018, he says, adding that research in Canada and Australia is both ahead of the USA's at a country level. The UK, as part of its own quantum boost, invested in building a quantum computer as well as some money in quantum key distribution. "But they are all hardware-related," he says. "We are still playing quite a bit of catch-up to be honest."
"Then you have other countries: obviously the most-mentioned one would be China, which is way ahead. In terms of the commercial world it's unlikely but in the government world they really are way ahead – they have been thinking about quantum computing for over 10 years now."
Although critics claim that commercially available quantum computers will be 10 to 20 years away, in the government world, people who are paying attention are more worried, with some predicting working machines in under five years.
The key difference here is that unlike in the commercial world, governments could have patched together quantum machines "the size of a stadium hidden somewhere in a basement" – and as long as it works, you can start cracking encryption.
"A lot of the critics have got it wrong, I would claim," Cheng adds. "They are talking about a commercially available, sell-able quantum computer for a bank to do their hedge fund analysis and so on. But in cyber security that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about a working engine."
He compares the commercial electric cars of today to the feasible electric cars that had already long been in existence – it is the feasibility, rather than its commercial viability, which could upset events on the international stage.
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