So, what are those aforementioned intractable problems? “It would be pretty disappointing, after all this genius, pain and heartache has gone into quantum computing, if the only thing we can do with it is break codes,” notes Peter Lee. “But it’s very early days. When we first created computers with vacuum tubes and valves, the big thing we could conceive of doing was calculating better, more accurate missile trajectories.”
One big area of research is quantum chemistry. “We’re looking at how we can make fertiliser better, how to do activation of hydrogen and oxygen better, we’re looking at how we can help with the environment, what are the things we might do with higher temperature superconductors. All these things are possibilities, in addition to AI and machine learning things,” Holmdahl believes. “This technology has a real opportunity to make an impact on our lives in a profound way.”
Thanks to the quantum simulation software development kit Microsoft has come up with, Lee says that they already know that a problem like calculating the energy minimum of ferrodoxin – “if we can do that we have a basic building block for a next generation chemical catalyst,” he adds – would take about nine hours to run on a general purpose quantum computing machine (instead of billions of years on a conventional supercomputer).
And when might we get that quantum computer? Holmdahl has some dates in mind, though he won’t share them and he warns that quantum computing is still an unknown scientific frontier. He says that “some of this stuff is going to take time and there are a bunch of things that may be unsuspected as we go forward.”
Peter Lee says he keeps changing his mind on how long a quantum computer might take to arrive. “Some days I think it could be tomorrow, some days I think I won't live long enough to see it; it’s so unpredictable.”
Holmdahl agrees: “There are days which are like ‘wow, we’re right there on the threshold’, and there are days like ‘wow, it might be a long time away!’ But more and more, I feel like we are right there on the threshold.”
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Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.