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Students at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA) are applying challenges from the business world to IBM’s quantum computers.
Quantum computing is still in its infancy, and the largest quantum computer at the moment is at IBM and counts 127 qubits.
But expectations are high and governments, scientific institutions and the business community are increasingly looking to each other to be ready for a new technological revolution.
Marten Teitsma heads the special lectureship in applied quantum computing at the HvA, a collaboration with the Centre for Mathematics and Informatics and Capgemini, among others.
According to Teitsma, the Netherlands occupies a top-three position in Europe when it comes to quantum computing. “The centre of quantum technology and quantum computing is in Delft, where the TU works with Qtech on the subject,” he said. “But Amsterdam also plays a significant role with, for example, Qsoft, which focuses on software development for quantum computing worldwide. All in all, we as the Netherlands are well positioned.”
The Dutch government sees quantum technology as an opportunity and is investing heavily in the sector. Last year, the Netherlands made €615m available with the aim of becoming a leading global centre for quantum computing. Earlier this year, it was announced that the successful Dutch quantum company Qu&Co is merging with French quantum computer builder Pasqal. This raises the question of whether the Dutch government is doing enough to keep the country attractive for this type of startup.
Five application areas for quantum computers
Drug and materials discovery: Untangling the complexity of molecular and chemical interactions, leading to the discovery of medicines and materials.
Supply chain and logistics: Finding the optimal path across global systems for ultra-efficient logistics and supply chains, such as optimising fleet operations for deliveries during the holiday season.
Financial services: Finding ways to model financial data and isolating key global risk factors to make better investments.
Artificial intelligence: Making facets of AI, such as machine learning, much more powerful when datasets can be too big, such as searching images or video.
Cloud security: Making cloud computing more secure by using the laws of quantum physics to enhance private data safety.
According to Teitsma, this is precisely why money has been made available in a growth fund. “With this, we want to strengthen the position that we have as a country,” he said. “The ultimate goal is, of course, to become the number one. We want to rise in the various rankings that exist in this area.”
The lecturer is happy that the merger of Qu&Co is with a French company because, according to him, the various European countries must eventually move towards a European ecosystem. “Each country starts on its own, of course, but we cannot escape the fact that it will eventually become a European story,” he said. “The implementation of this type of new technology costs so much money, time and intellect that many countries cannot afford it themselves.
“You see that the US and China can do it as large economies, but in order for Europe to play an important role in this world, we have to start working together.”
The money from the growth fund has gone to Quantum Delta NL, the Dutch organisation that is creating a national ecosystem for quantum innovation with the aim of attracting talent and bringing the technology to the market. In 2019, the National Agenda Quantum Technology was released in the Netherlands. It was drawn up by knowledge institutions, companies and civil society organisations and it contains action points to enable the Netherlands to maintain its top position in the field of quantum technology.
According to Teitsma, it is important that scientific institutes are not the only ones to focus on quantum technology, but that all levels of education pay more attention to technology. “In order to have sufficient talent available in the future, attention must already be paid to technology in primary education,” he said. “This applies not only to things like software engineering, AI and quantum technology, but also to things like chemical technology, central heating systems and electricity. As a country, we cannot do without these kinds of professionals and there is already a glaring shortage of them.”
To lead the pursuit of quantum computing knowledge from fundamental research through to its application, the HvA launched a minor in applied quantum computing last year. Within the programme, students research applications of quantum computers from a practical perspective and test the current technology.
In collaboration with industry, students work on concrete quantum assignments and issues. They do this partly on real quantum computers from, for example, IBM and TU Delft, which are available for experiments via the cloud. The students also work on assignments on simulators that run on their own laptops.
According to Teitsma, the biggest challenges of quantum computing at the moment are decoherence, measurement problems, upscaling and the technology to be used in terms of hardware. “The measurement problem arises when you want to know the interim results of a calculation that you have a quantum computer perform,” he said. “When you measure a qubit, it loses its information and goes back to the classical state of a 0 or a 1. That means that with quantum computing, you cannot look at intermediate results and that poses a problem when testing software, for example.”
Decoherence refers to noise, something to which a quantum computer is enormously sensitive. “By this, we mean that the information a qubit contains can easily be influenced by its environment and therefore changes,” said Teitsma. “This ensures that you can’t do a calculation for very long and that as the number of qubits used increases, the problem becomes bigger.”
There are also different techniques for quantum computing and time will tell which one will eventually become dominant globally, he said. “For example, you have superconductivity at very low temperature, but also photonic conduction and cold atoms where atoms are held still using a laser and are therefore cold. It is still unclear what the winning technology will be.”
Read more about quantum computing
- No one wants to run a computer operating at temperatures close to absolute zero – this is pushing the boundaries of new computing architectures.
- Car maker BMW is encouraging researchers and startups to submit industry-specific algorithms that take advantage of quantum computing.
- Among the promises of quantum computing is to run combinational optimisation for tasks such as complex train scheduling to minimise disruption.
- As part of its ongoing effort to keep up with the latest technology, the United Arab Emirates has begun work on the region’s first quantum computer.
A final challenge is scaling up the technology, said Teitsma. At the moment, the largest quantum computer is 127 qubits in size, but IBM’s ambition is to have a quantum computer with 1,000 qubits by 2023. “To achieve superconductivity at very low temperature, you need a freezer,” he said. “These are still small now, for those 127 qubits. But you can imagine that if IBM wants to go to 1,000, the freezer it needs will also have to be a lot bigger.
“In addition, cabling – as crazy as that sounds – is a very practical problem. If you want to control qubits, you need a cable. And all those cables have to go into that freezer. For the time being, that is a challenge.”
According to Teitsma, it is important for the Netherlands as a country to be well prepared. “Do not underestimate how quickly this technology develops,” he said. “Our laptops can already do as much as the supercomputers of 20, 30 years ago.”
The lecturer pointed out that quantum technology involves more than just quantum computing. “We distinguish four components in quantum technology – computing, simulation, sensing and communication,” he said. “The applied physics faculty at the HvA focuses more on the communication and sensing components, because they are more hardware-based.”
Developments in these areas mean that the Netherlands has certain responsibilities when quantum technology achieves breakthrough, he added. These responsibilities are one of the lines of action set out by Quantum Delta NL under the heading Ethical legal societal aspects (Elsa). “We realise that quantum technology can bring us wonderful things, but that there is also a downside to it,” said Teitsma.
He referred, for example, to the proven possibility that a quantum algorithm could theoretically break the widely used RSA encryption protocol. A usable quantum computer is expected to be available in 10 to 15 years. “We have to think about those things right now because it has far-reaching consequences today,” he said. “In anticipation of the quantum computer, people and organisations can already start storing messages so that they can be cracked by then.
“If someone intercepts your invoice for an internet order and is able to decipher it, there is probably not much to worry about. But that doesn’t apply to state secrets, for example. That is why alternative protocols – the so-called post-quantum cryptography protocols – are already being developed.”
But the consequences of quantum technology must also be considered in other areas, such as legal and ethical, said the lecturer. “And what about the impact on society?” he said. “How do we deal with new technology responsibly? It is important that we think about that as a country.”
Teitsma pointed to AI, the technical development and consequences of which have “overtaken” the Netherlands and Europe. “The US and China are in the vanguard in this area, and as a result we are always a bit behind, even when it comes to the aspects we are trying to highlight with Elsa,” he said. “Repairing it afterwards will prove very difficult. That is why we want to get ahead of this with quantum technology by thinking about the negative consequences beforehand and considering how we can, must and want to deal with them.”