Dec 05 2019

What Is Quantum Computing and How Can It Help Feds?

The emerging technology could potentially help agencies analyze data more quickly to find the best way to get desired results.

Quantum computing hit a major milestone this fall when tech giant Google announced it had run a successful trial in which a calculation that would have taken the fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to solve was completed in 200 seconds.

Quantum computing is orders of magnitude more powerful than traditional computers. It has potential applications in pharmaceuticals, finance, transportation and beyond. With the passage of the National Quantum Initiative Act in December 2018, the U.S. government laid out a plan for advancing quantum technology with support from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department.

Still, many IT decision-makers seem unsure about the basics of quantum technology, and it’s unclear how this new approach might be implemented in federal agencies.

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What Is Quantum Computing?

Quantum computers are devices that use the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics to process information.

“Instead of using bits of 0s and 1s, as all of our classical computers do, quantum computers’ quantum bits — or “qubits” — can be in combinations, or superpositions, of states of 0 or 1. Superposition gives quantum computers the “potential for exponentially growing compute states,” says Bob Sutor, vice president of IBM Q Strategy & Ecosystem.

A conventional computer understands two possible states. It’s like flipping a coin: Data is either heads or tails, the famous 0s and 1s of binary code. Quantum machines can look at information in innumerable simultaneous states. Instead of a coin flip, it’s more like rolling a marble.

A quantum machine can thus store many more variables in a much smaller space and can process them faster. “All possibilities in the computer are possible, and I can process all those possibilities at once, rather than in parallel,” says Carl Williams, acting director of NIST’s Physical Measurement Laboratory.

For certain types of large, complex calculations, “quantum computers will be so powerful, you can’t even imagine the number of classical computers it would take to do comparable work,” says Thyagarajan Nandagopal, acting deputy assistant director of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate at the National Science Foundation.

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What Are the Benefits of Quantum Computing in Government?

These are early days for quantum computing. As Williams points out, asking about the practical implications today is akin to asking someone in the mid-1950s what a computer might be used for in the future. They would have had a hard time envisioning the possibilities. Still, enough is known about quantum computing to begin to paint a picture.

Nandagopal points to quantum’s special strength in building and breaking encryption algorithms. This could impact security across government, and it might have special implications for the military.

If quantum helps us see deeper into biological processes, the Agriculture Department could use it to tweak photosynthesis and perhaps grow food more efficiently.

It might just make daily government processes more efficient. “A data set that takes days or months to churn through could give us answers in just a couple of seconds,” Nandagopal says. “That means you can make a sound policy decision based on that data much more quickly.

Quantum is especially good for “optimization” problems — finding the best way to get to a desired end. That has big implications for government.

Thyagarajan Nandagopal, Acting Deputy Assistant Director, Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, National Science Foundation
Quantum computers will be so powerful, you can’t even imagine the number of classical computers it would take to do comparable work.”

Thyagarajan Nandagopal Acting Deputy Assistant Director, Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, National Science Foundation

“The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, needs to maximize the number of planes that can come into an airport,” Williams says. “That’s easy on an ordinary day. But when a thunderstorm comes in and disrupts air travel, they need to reoptimize quickly to get all the planes to come in in a safe an effective manner.

Quantum does that extremely well, and the same techniques could be applied by the Defense Department to tackle transportation problems in order to better organize troop movements. “Optimization problems are everywhere,” Williams says.

Researchers also are looking at quantum computing’s ability to process complex and subtle interactions at the subatomic level. Robust computing here could make quantum a potentially powerful new tool for designing new drugs and medical treatments, something that could benefit agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Any place where quantum physics is at the core of a capability, quantum computing will be useful,” Williams says. “We could look at the processes going on deep in the earth and predict the most powerful earthquake to ever hit California two weeks before it happens.”

In a mathematical sense, quantum physics is all about uncertainty and probabilities. Those principles could be applied in a military context. “In war, the biggest problem is that you never know what your opponent is going to do. There is a certain randomness in it,” Williams says. “In a war game scenario, a quantum approach ensures that a war game would never play the same way twice. You could play through all the possibilities, and that begins to eliminate that randomness.”

In the near term, government’s biggest role may be in helping to further the evolution of this emerging technology. “Government labs and government-funded universities play an important role in fundamental research and the education of future quantum computing scientists and engineers,” Sutor says.

For example, in August of this year, the Air Force Research Lab announced it was joining the IBM Q Network in an effort to investigate quantum applications in algorithms, machine learning, neural network training and other areas. Such efforts could drive “the creation of a new community for industry and application-oriented quantum computation strategies,” Sutor says.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Ask these questions before buying AI-enabled security software.

Types of Quantum Computing: Annealing vs. Simulations vs. Universal

A few key terms around quantum computing include quantum annealing, quantum simulations and universal quantum computing. It’s worth taking a slightly deeper dive to understand these.

  • Quantum annealing is a process used to solve a very specific optimization problem. “I have a function and I want to find the place where this function reaches its lowest possible value,” Nandagopal says. “These kinds of problems surround us: finding the shortest route between two places, or airlines quoting a price. These are all optimization problems that can be supported by annealing.
  • Quantum simulations use quantum physics to replicate the actions of a quantum computer. “To understand how something works in real life, you want to model it in the lab,” Nandagopal says. “If you want to study how traffic flows on the road, you build a simulator and create cars and barriers and construction zones to see what it tells you about real life.” A quantum simulation does the same thing, building models according to the principles of quantum physics.
  • Universal quantum computing is not a machine but rather a model, a way of envisioning how a future quantum computer might operate — like saying that a car has four wheels, an engine and some seats. “It’s an abstraction,” Nandagopal says. “It doesn’t say how the algorithm would be implemented, since that would depend on the particular architecture of the machine. Instead it says: This is how a computer would work,”

The Top Quantum Computing Companies in Today’s Market

A range of large and small tech players are tackling this, including Google, IBM, Microsoft and Honeywell.

“There are many companies exploring these possibilities and they are all contributing to a competitive environment. But it’s early days, it’s the Wild West,” Williams says.

“The first companies involved today are looking for a niche market, a simulation or a solution to a very specific problem,” he adds. “We will find a few of those niche things of interest to scientists, and then we’ll just have to see what else comes to fruition.”

It may be a decade or more before we see widespread adoption of quantum computing. Government, meanwhile, can help create an environment in which innovation and experimentation around quantum can flourish. “Open-source access and adoption is how an ecosystem of developers, scientists, educators and professionals across different industries will get ‘quantum ready’ for this new generation of computing,” Sutor says.

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