What the heck is quantum computing and is it worth investing in?
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Most of us have seen images of old computers that were the size of a room, containing only a fraction of the computing power of today’s devices that are so ubiquitous.
And just as those old computers superseded age-old abacuses, and those old computers were superseded by miniscule mobile phones, classic computers are now in danger of being made obsolete too, by quantum computers.
Quantum computing is a phrase you may have heard bandied about in recent years, and with good reason: quantum computers are fabled to operate at speeds eclipsing that of classic computers, offering potential solutions to complex computation, cryptography and simulation problems.
It is based on the physics of quantum mechanics, the theory which describes nature at the smallest scales — think atoms and subatomic particles, like quarks, electrons and the Higgs boson. Matter at this level behaves in weird ways, very unlike classical matter.
For example, take quantum entanglement, which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”. If two particles meet, they interfere with each other and become ‘entangled’; meaning that one can accurately measure a quality of the first particle, such as its spin, by observing only the second particle, even if the two particles are billions of light years apart.
(A much simpler way to think of quantum mechanics is via Schrödinger’s cat, helpfully explained in this video.)
It could also offer investors exposure to the next great technological breakthrough. Goldman Sachs estimates the global market for quantum computing could be worth $43 billion by 2021, while the Boston Consulting Group says the upper limits of the market size depends on achieving technical milestones over the coming decades.
Venture capital firm Square Peg Capital — the one behind Canva — has invested money in quantum computing, with its co-founder Tony Holt outlining the opportunity it presents at a conference this month.
And the ASX is already home to a quantum computing stock, in Archer Exploration (ASX:AXE).
The company, which has a number of mining tenements prospective for copper, manganese, cobalt, tungsten, and graphite and also dabbles in the biotech space, spent most of last year in discussions with potential partners to develop quantum computing technology, and earlier this week assembled the first component of its processor.
However, it is prudent to take a breath.
The gulf between idea and reality when it comes to quantum computing is currently very wide.
Today’s quantum computers are very noisy, prone to errors and very sensitive to temperature. A quantum computer’s data is stored in qubits (like a classical computer’s data is stored in bits), and many quantum computers require their qubits to be cooled to nearly absolute zero, the coldest temperature possible, to prevent errors occurring.
This is where Archer comes in — it is developing a quantum computer chip that, if successful, will allow quantum computers to be mobile and operate at room temperature.
Dr Mohammad Choucair on Monday described his company’s development of the first qubit component of a prototype room-temperature operation quantum computing qubit processor as a major breakthrough towards that goal.
“This outstanding achievement further strengthens our commercial readiness, as we’ve met a key milestone in de-risking and progressing the chip technology development, while demonstrating a key success factor of a scalable qubit architecture the quantum computing community commonly uses to qualify the most promising early-stage, long-term potential solutions to practical quantum computing,” he said.
So, if in 20 years time you are reading this story on a quantum-powered device, you might have an Australian startup to thank for it.