WRITTEN BY: Audrey Woods
It’s no exaggeration for MIT's Professor William Oliver to call hype around quantum computing “frothy.” A simple Google search hails quantum computers as the solution for everything from preventing economic recessions to scheduling space missions to being really good at Wordle. And while the technology is still in its infancy, the market share is projected to grow from $0.5 billion in 2021 to $3.2 billion in 2028. Industry leaders all over the world are scrambling to be first to enter this rapidly expanding arena.
This isn’t a problem for Professor Peter Shor and Professor William Oliver, both of whom have devoted their careers to making this particular science-fiction staple a reality. Prof. Shor, in fact, is considered by some to be the father of quantum computing. His groundbreaking Shor’s algorithm was a seminal contribution to the field, earning him the 2022 James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award, the highest honor MIT can bestow upon one of its members. Its citation reads, “quantum computing exists today, in practice, because of Peter Shor.”
Prof. Oliver has also been involved in the field since its infancy, returning to MIT after graduate school with the explicit interest in the incredible potential of quantum computing. Now he’s the director of the Center for Quantum Engineering, a Lincoln Lab Fellow, and a Principal Investigator in the Engineering Quantum System Group on MIT campus, among other roles. Needless to say, he’s only getting busier.
Prof. Oliver explains, “what's really changed in the last five years is we got to the point where…we know that [the mechanics behind quantum computers] work and now we need to improve their performance and make them better… We've moved from a laboratory curiosity to a technical reality.”
Despite the hype, Prof. Shor and Prof. Oliver have a more conservative timeline than the excitable industry news might suggest. Comparing the development of quantum computers to the historical development of classical computers, Prof. Shor jokes that “we’re not even to the punch card [stage].” There are some major hurdles in quantum computing that still haven’t been fully overcome, hurdles that scientists like Prof. Shor and Prof. Oliver are working hard to address.
One such issue is error correction. The draw of quantum computers is that, because of how quantum physics work, the technology can deal with a level of complexity impossible for classical computers. The vast amount of data and nuance these machines can process is unprecedented, allowing them to answer questions with multiple possible answers, or solve gigantic equations that would take classical computers months or even years.
However, nearly infinite volumes of data also mean nearly infinite opportunities for error. Due to another quirk of quantum mechanics, it’s very difficult to know where the error is taking place, much less how to correct it. The very act of “reading” inside the system forces the particles into one configuration or another, therefore destroying their capacity to hold all that nuance. Finding problem points in a quantum computer can be like trying to de-bug code blind. Luckily, there have been some “really exciting developments” in quantum error correction lately, Prof. Shor says, that could mean a solution is in sight.
Another problem in the quantum computing field is a lack of talent pipeline and infrastructure. “We need to train a workforce, frankly,” Prof. Oliver explains, describing the challenge of finding entry-level engineers. To really bring this technology to the market will require not only physicists but also computer engineers, software designers, manufacturers, and especially teachers. “We need to identify what it means to be a quantum engineer,” says Prof. Oliver, expressing the need for clear quantum tracks in education. Prof. Shor adds, “it’s not the case that a quantum computer is just like a classical computer only faster.” Developing everything about quantum computers will require a whole new way of thinking, entirely new algorithms for a new class of problems. “We really don’t have a very good handle on this,” Prof. Shor says, with a clearly emphasized unspoken yet.
“It’s going to take longer than two or three years,” according to Prof. Oliver, to bring quantum computers to the market. But both Prof. Oliver and Prof. Shor seem confident that big change is on the way. With such enormous stakes, it’s no surprise that government and industry alike are putting their best people—and dollars—toward the task. “The first quantum computers that can break RSA (the current cryptosecurity system widely used in secure data transmission) are…going to be used for breaking communications [between countries]. There are a lot of government organizations that would pay huge amounts of money for the ability to break these communications,” Prof. Shor warns.
To comfort the average consumer, Prof. Shor adds, “credit card theft is way down the scale of what these quantum computers are going to be used for.” At least not until the technology becomes more ubiquitous.
Quantum computers won’t entirely replace classical computers, and Prof. Oliver even imagines that they will be needed “in tandem.” The likelihood of everyone owning a personal quantum computer by 2040 isn’t high. But quantum computers could dramatically change the landscape of fields such as cryptosecurity, pharmaceutical targeting, and even particle physics. The first computers offered our species extraordinary innovation and insight into how our world works. Quantum computers promise to elevate us even further. The only question is who the big winners will be.
“Everybody’s neck and neck right now,” Prof. Oliver says. “It’s hard to say who’s going to win this marathon.” But it’s safe to imagine, with Prof. Shor and Prof. Oliver’s help, that MIT will be leading the way.
MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and MIT’s Center for Quantum Engineering are teaming up to assemble leaders across AI and Quantum to discuss the promise and practical realities - as we know them today - about Quantum Computing, Artificial Intelligence, and how they will affect the economy and the world. Join us this fall for Convergence: The Promise and Reality of AI & Quantum a one-day program that is essential for those wanting to understand where Quantum research stands and harness the power at the intersection of quantum and AI. This program will be held in-person at MIT and virtually.
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