In 1982, Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman conceived of an ultrapowerful calculator that relies on microscopic particles to operate. He called his idea a “quantum” computer, referring to the laws that govern nature at a subatomic level.
Today, some of the technology sector’s biggest companies, such as Google, Microsoft and China’s Alibaba have latched onto the idea. The tech giants, along with upstarts such as California-based Rigetti, are in a race to build these cutting-edge machines which promise to revolutionize industries ranging from aerospace and energy to pharmaceuticals and finance by letting them process information faster than ever before.
“Quantum will completely change the way we do everything—the radars we build, the processing back ends, the way we think about aircraft vehicle management,” said Kathy Warden, chairman, CEO and president Northrop Grumman, which is investing in a computing lab in partnership with Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus.
Some companies already are testing the technology, hoping quantum computing will eventually give them a competitive edge over rivals. Governments understand the geopolitical implications, too. The U.S. has earmarked more than $1 billion to create a unified national quantum computing strategy, although that amount pales in comparison to China’s plan to build a $10-billion national lab for quantum computing.
“This feels like my generation’s space race,” said Jim Clark, Intel’s director of Quantum hardware.
Despite its small size, Rigetti, founded by a physicist who previously built quantum computers at IBM, believes it can challenge the large, established technology enterprises. The company sells a quantum computing cloud service to researchers who are vying to be the first to achieve “quantum advantage,” defined as the point at which a quantum computer outperforms a traditional one.
The most popular approach to quantum computing uses superconducting electronic circuits, piggy-backing on the foundations of the semiconductor industry. Whereas ordinary computers encode information as silicon-inscribed bits, either “0s” or “1s,” quantum computers use quantum bits, or “qubits,” the basic units of information in a quantum computer.
Qubits make use of a quantum mechanical phenomenon called “superposition,” where some properties of a particle are not defined for certain until they’re actually measured. Quantum computers conduct calculations by manipulating qubits in a way that affects these superimposed probabilities before making a measurement to gain a final answer. To keep these particles in flux, they must be kept extremely cold.
Some scientists believe it will take up to 10 years before the technology can handle any meaningful tasks. But there are those who predict that “institutionalization” may be no more than five years away. Researchers have long predicted that quantum computers could tackle certain types of problems, especially those involving an almost unimaginable number of variables and potential outcomes—examples include simulations, optimization questions and geospatial analytics—much faster than any classical computer.
“The technology is there and definitely is being used in pockets, such as some of the national labs and R&D-intensive government agencies,” said the chief technology officer at a major aerospace company. The time it takes to compute anything will be an order of magnitude greater, he said.
In 2019, Google disclosed that it ran a mathematical calculation on a quantum computer in a matter of minutes that would take a classical computer 10,000 years to complete. The following year, Chinese scientists claimed they had performed an ultra-complex calculation even faster.
Large-scale quantum computing, whenever it does occur, could help address real-world business and government challenges. Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, offers examples from two separate disciplines. In the field of personalized medicine, quantum computers could model drug interactions for the 20,000-plus proteins encoded in the human genome. In climate science, the quantum-enabled simulation might unlock new insights into human ecological impact on the environment.
Airbus established a quantum computing unit in 2015 and has also invested in quantum software startup QC Ware and quantum computer maker IonQ. One area the company is looking at is quantum annealing for digital modeling and materials sciences. For example, a quantum computer could screen countless variables in just a few hours to help determine the most efficient wing design for a new aircraft.
Before quantum computing achieves its full potential, however, the field still faces significant technical barriers, including error correction and stability tools, to help more businesses develop software for quantum computers and finding enough people with the required skill sets.
Learn how aerospace leaders are driving new innovations here.