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Harnessing quantum to build the computers of the future

Kenny MacIver – June 2018
Quantum computing is moving from physics theory to business reality. 1QBit CEO Andrew Fursman outlines how the promised surge in processing power could help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Some of the largest companies in high-tech have a stated, lofty ambition of rising to the grand challenges facing humankind. They’ve set their sights on the development of innovations that will help counter climate change, cure many major diseases, manage the infrastructure of megacities, ensure the care of aging populations and much more.

But one significant barrier ultimately stands in their way. With many experts predicting that Moore’s law (the doubling of transistors on an integrated circuit every two years) will run out of steam some time in the 2020s, few of these challenges will be within reach without a dramatic increase in processing power.
For many, quantum computing — which harnesses the properties of quantum mechanics (see our Quantum computing primer for CIOs) — represents a technological revolution that will not only steepen the exponential gradient of computational power but also open the door to solutions that were never within the reach of classical computers.

Companies across the industry, from pioneering start-ups such as D-Wave Systems to established technology leaders such as Fujitsu, Microsoft and Google, are racing to build these next-generation machines, as well as interim systems that are inspired by quantum.

Few people have a better view of this fast-developing world than Andrew Fursman, the CEO of Vancouver-based 1QB Information Technologies (1QBit), a quantum software company whose platform is enabling companies such as DowDuPont, Biogen, RBS and Allianz to experiment with early applications and understand the nature and value of quantum computers. In fact, he sees 2018 as a turning point for information technology that will have a huge impact on business and society, creating breakthrough applications and disrupting competitive landscapes while also posing some daunting challenges for coming years.
Seeds of a revolution
Ever since physicists in the 1980s first proposed simulating a quantum computer on digital platforms, the prospect of eventually developing a real quantum machine has loomed large. But it has only been in the past 10 years, as vast amounts of resources and intellectual capital have been directed towards realizing this goal, that the theory has started to become reality — and for good reason.

The fundamentals of these devices have been incredibly difficult to build,” says Fursman in our exclusive Big Thinker video. In a classical system the basic unit of a bit is essentially an on-off switch that can be created electromagnetically in a semiconductor such as silicon. In a quantum system, creating a quantum bit or qubit, which can exist in multiple states at the same time, is a major undertaking. Even harder is linking multiple qubits together, he says.


“We’re all searching to find the ideal way to build this fundamental unit of computing for this new paradigm and what look like incredible scaling properties,” Fursman says.

But the sense of what might just be possible has grown as the number of linked qubits in machines has risen towards 50. “We’re just getting to that tipping point that shows all the really hard work has paid off,” says Fursman. “Now everything is up for grabs and anything could happen.”

“We are beyond the capabilities of classical supercomputers to simulate more qubits, so that moment of quantum supremacy may have actually already occurred.”

Fursman believes that we’re close to the point at which quantum computers will start to outperform their classical progenitors in certain application areas. He certainly believes the signs are there: “I think this will be one of the last interviews I’ll ever do where I get to say the words ‘we haven’t provably reached this quantum supremacy point yet.’”

As the ability to scale quantum simulation on classical computers is reaching its limits, quantum machines have reached new levels. “The largest supercomputers can now simulate something in the order of 55 qubits, but every additional qubit that you want to simulate requires about twice as much computing power,” Fursman explains. At the same time, the number of qubits on general-purpose machines has scaled from single-digit numbers in 2016 to about 50 in 2017 and 72 this year.

“It seems that we are beyond the capabilities of classical supercomputers to simulate more qubits, so that moment of quantum supremacy may have actually already occurred,” he says. “When we get to around the 200-qubit level we should be able to do some exciting and incredible things that will look much more like industrially relevant problems” — and less like academic challenges.

• Photography: Jens Kristian Balle
First published
June 2018
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About: Andrew Fursman
Before co-founding quantum computing software company 1QB Information Technologies (1QBit) in Vancouver in 2012, Andrew Fursman built his expertise in organizations ranging from start-ups to large institutions. He has studied exponential technologies at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University (where he is now a faculty member) and financial engineering at Stanford. He worked on speech interface technologies at Quack.com and AOL Time Warner before co-founding and investing in a string of young companies with interests in nano-satellites, networking and cloud IT.

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