Tsjisse Talsma


What Quantum Computing Means for You

Scientists are harnessing quantum mechanics to create computing power beyond anything we’ve ever known

By Adrianna MacPherson

Tsjisse Talsma
April 19, 2023 •

We use computers in just about every facet of our lives. Most of us carry tiny computers around in our pockets and, with a simple tap, can pay for our groceries, access locked buildings or send a message to the other side of the world. 

Then there are the uses that have become central to our economies and societies, not to mention our personal lives — in some cases literally. Medical technology, banking, rail systems, traffic control, supply chains. The list goes on. Our demands are becoming increasingly complex and multi-faceted. 

The solution is simple. We need to go quantum. 

Quantum computing, that is. Which is not, in fact, simple at all. 

“It’s not just that quantum computing is faster. It’s actually different,” says Lindsay LeBlanc, ’03 BSc(EngPhys), Canada Research Chair in Ultracold Gases for Quantum Simulation. (Stay tuned for more about ultracold later.)

Scientists see this yet-to-be-realized technology as the key to cracking many as yet intractable problems as well as a possible solution to the world’s insatiable need for computing power. Researchers like LeBlanc and others at the U of A are among those striving to make the technology viable.

“The world’s computers are grinding away and using a huge amount of energy,” says Robert Wolkow, a U of A expert in nanoscale information and communications technology. “It’s totally unsustainable. We need more efficient computers.”

So what is quantum computing?

Quantum Technology

In addition to quantum computing, two other quantum technologies are at the forefront of research. 

Quantum sensing measures physical quantities such as electric and magnetic fields, chemical processes and temperature with tremendous accuracy and precision. It promises to give us new insight into what’s in our bodies, in the ground and all around us.

Quantum communication makes many of today’s high-tech options seem like relics, providing greater degrees of security than we’ve ever imagined. Innovations in this sphere could help keep our data safe in everything from health care to banking.

The ‘Bit’ of Difference

One of the key differences between quantum and regular computers is the way they store information. Regular computing uses binary digits, a.k.a. bits, where each bit can store one piece of information: it’s either a zero or a one. Quantum computing uses quantum bits, called qubits [kyoo-bits]. Thanks to a quantum property called superposition, qubits level up the standard binary code. Rather than being either zero or one, they can be both at the same time. 

“There are two pieces of information carried with that one physical object,” explains LeBlanc. “That’s really at the heart of why it’s so much more powerful.” 

The Problems it Solves

Quantum computers are expected to be lean, mean problem-solving machines. Their unique properties mean they could tackle questions and calculations that regular computers would find prohibitively challenging. This is because the property of superposition (the same one that allows each qubit to store more information) gives quantum computers the ability to analyze many things at the same time. 

They are expected to excel at two key types of problems, LeBlanc explains. 

The first has to do with optimization, where a computer program tries to figure out the best path to do something when there are many options. The world presents countless real-world optimization problems: planning the most efficient route for a delivery person with multiple packages and stops, for example, or helping health researchers find the one chemical or molecule they need amid a sea of options.

Quantum computers are also expected to outdo today’s computers when it comes to security. This is because of an intriguing quantum property called the no-cloning theorem. With information stored in qubits, explains LeBlanc, “you can’t look at it and make a direct copy of the information without destroying it.” This means that the user will know immediately if a quantum computer is hacked and be able to avoid the loss of sensitive data. 

Running on Atoms 

So how do you make a quantum computer? The components aren’t whipped up in the machine shop or factory. It takes atoms to make them run. And atoms need to be contained in order to work with them. 

Engineering professor Ray Decorby works on what’s called “cavity quantum electrodynamics,” which involves taking fundamental particles such as atoms and confining them in tiny containers. 

“Once confined, we can make them interact in a way that can be controlled at the quantum level and can be useful for performing quantum functions,” says Decorby. 

Working at the quantum level also requires cooling the atoms to incredibly cold temperatures, around -273 degrees Celsius. This minimizes the chances of qubits moving from one energy state to another in an unpredictable way. At warmer temperatures, LeBlanc explains, “you don’t have that control over setting your qubit. It gets scrambled up because it vibrates more as the temperature increases.” 

When atoms are ultracold, their movement slows down. As a result, they begin to act together, with their behaviour governed by quantum mechanics. “They’re a very nice test bed for quantum technology,” says LeBlanc, whose area of expertise is ultracold research. 

On the Horizon

LeBlanc estimates that the widespread use of quantum computers could come within a decade. They’ll likely be housed in large research facilities at universities and corporations — much like the days when regular computers were mammoth machines that took up entire rooms. They’re most likely to be accessible to the rest of us, at least initially, as a remote cloud service. 

Already, the research race is on to create systems with more and more qubits. As little as two years ago it was common to see 50-qubit prototypes, says LeBlanc. That has since increased to 100-qubit systems. The more qubits a system has, the more problems and greater complexity it can handle. 

Alberta Innovates, the provincial government’s research and innovation agency, recently funded LeBlanc’s lab to construct a small-scale quantum computer prototype with modules of about 100 qubits each. 

A lot of research has to take place before quantum computers become an everyday fact in our lives, LeBlanc says, but the fact that the technology is moving from the lab to the real world is already a big win in her eyes. 

“It’s a fundamental principle of our universe, that it is quantum and it works this way,” says LeBlanc. “If we can actually harness that, it’s a really powerful thing.”

Go Deeper

Quantum Industry Scales Up

  • Alberta is already a strong player in quantum technologies, and a recent $23-million provincial investment promises to accelerate the progress made over the past two decades. 
  • The U of A has partnered with the universities of Calgary and Lethbridge to create Quantum City, a collaboration hub that will allow researchers, companies and other organizations involved in quantum technology to draw on one another’s expertise. The hub will include education and training, internships and research funding.
  • Researchers and professors at the U of A are also involved in training tomorrow’s quantum experts through Quanta CREATE. The provincial program for graduate students prepares them for jobs in these emerging technologies by providing additional education in project management and business skills. 
  • New businesses and jobs are another product of growing U of A expertise. Examples include Quantum Silicon Inc., founded by physics professor Robert Wolkow, which is manufacturing the first portable quantum random number generator, enabling widespread quantum-enhanced cybersecurity. Zero Point Cryogenics, founded by physics professor John Davis, makes a type of refrigerator that uses liquid helium to cool particles down to the temperatures needed for quantum computing. 

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