Is The Future Quantum? : Short Wave NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel takes us to IonQ, one of the companies betting on a quantum computing future. Along the way, Geoff explains what little researchers know about how we might actually use this technology. There are hints though quantum computing could change everything from discovering new drugs to developing advanced materials.

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Is The Future Quantum?

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.



Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here with NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hi, Geoff.


KWONG: So I heard that you managed to leave your home office and go report in the field?

BRUMFIEL: It's true. I left, took a bunch of paperwork. And they had to send me some N95 respirator masks.

Get our mask on, get out of the car. Oh, this mask is so uncomfortable.

I got to go to a beige, suburban office building about 15 minutes away from where I live.

Pretty nondescript. Doesn't really feel like the future, I guess I'd say. But I'm told this is where the future is. So that's why I've come here.

KWONG: What future are we talking about here?

BRUMFIEL: Well, inside this building, Emily, there is a new kind of computer, a kind of computer that some people think is going to completely change the world. It's called a quantum computer. And if scientists and engineers can get it to work, it could be revolutionary.

KWONG: Yes, quantum computing. Geoff, so many of our listeners have asked about this.

BRUMFIEL: Oh, that's awesome.

KWONG: But in my limited experience reporting on physics, anything with the word quantum just means, like, confusion ahead, you know?

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, look. I'm not going to promise to explain everything about quantum computing to you today, but I will attempt to explain the basics and why some of the world's biggest tech companies are investing millions and millions into building quantum computers, even though nobody's quite sure what they're going to be used for.


KWONG: So today on the show, we look at some very, very small computers that could change everything about the world as we know it. It's quantum computing time.


KWONG: All right. Geoff Brumfiel, let's get back to your field trip to that kind of boring office building in Maryland holding what could be the computer of the future.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, so it was boring on the outside, but inside, it was really done up like some sort of Silicon Valley start-up - clean lines. They had a pingpong table.

CHRIS MONROE: We actually only recently expanded, taking over the entire building. We only had a third of it before.

BRUMFIEL: That's Chris Monroe. He's co-founder and chief scientist at this company, which is called IonQ. And IonQ is in the very unusual business of trying to build quantum computers. In fact, right in the lobby in a glass case is one of their early designs.

You said this is a museum piece. How old is it?

MONROE: Oh, let's see. This was last in service probably about two years ago.

BRUMFIEL: So that's how fast things are moving. Two years, you're in a museum.

MONROE: Well, we've built five generations. And we're now building two more on the way in parallel. We're designing the ones beyond that. So things are pretty fast (laughter).

KWONG: I mean, what do these computers actually look like?

BRUMFIEL: Well, they're sort of a mix of lasers and shiny metal vacuum chambers and electronics. I mean, they don't really look like a computer at all, to be honest. It's more like a physics experiment. But that's changing really fast.

This is a first for me.


BRUMFIEL: Chris takes me to the new machines, which they have in the back.

MONROE: These are a couple of the next generation systems that are being built right now, actually.

BRUMFIEL: They're in these big black cubes that kind of take up the room and have IonQ stamped on the side.

MONROE: The big black boxes are a little bit overkill.

BRUMFIEL: So inside these boxes at their very core are a few individual atoms of an element called ytterbium. These atoms are suspended on a microchip, and then they're poked and prodded with the lasers to do quantum calculations. And Chris really believes these machines are going to revolutionize our lives.

MONROE: We're building something that's going to hit everything. It's going to hit all sectors of the economy. So well, while don't know exactly where the first paydirt's going to come from, once a single app gets out there, it's going to hit everything - oil and gas, energy, big pharma, financials, logistics. Almost any company that has a hard problem, which is everybody, they're going to be able to use quantum computers for.

BRUMFIEL: And investors are buying into this vision. He and his partners have raised around 80 million in venture capital to build IonQ.

KWONG: Well, what's so special about these machines? Like, what makes them trust that this will be the computer of the future?

BRUMFIEL: Right. So that gets to the quantum part that we all kind of fear (laughter), like, as explanatory journalists.

KWONG: I believe in you. You can do it.

BRUMFIEL: Actually, you know what? Frankly, I can't, Emily. But I'm going to introduce us to someone who can. Her name is Marissa Giustina.

MARISSA GIUSTINA: I guess my my technical job title is senior research scientist and quantum electronics engineer. That's a bit of a mouthful.

BRUMFIEL: So Marissa works at Google, which has one of the largest quantum computing efforts going on right now. And she says the first thing to know is this.

GIUSTINA: I don't like thinking of a quantum computer as a computer because it's really nothing like the computer that we are familiar with on a day-to-day basis.

KWONG: OK, what does she mean by that?

BRUMFIEL: Well, what she means is that computers like the ones we use every day are these very specific kinds of problem-solving machines. And they do all their work using ones and zeros, binary code. I mean, I think we all are kind of aware of that. Quantum computers solve problems in a completely different way, using the rules of quantum mechanics.

KWONG: Right. And quantum mechanics explains the behavior of very, very small things like atoms and molecules.

BRUMFIEL: Right. But...

GIUSTINA: Because our intuition doesn't operate according to quantum mechanics, it's kind of difficult to get a feeling for how the rules are different. But there are things we gain and things we lose, I would say.

KWONG: Let's get into what's different with quantum computing. What things do we gain?

BRUMFIEL: Right. So when a computer uses ones and zeros, I mean, you can think about it as an either/or situation. Like a bit of information is either on, one, or off, zero. But in quantum mechanics, that bit can also exist in a kind of fuzzy in-between state. So a quantum bit in a computer can be kind of both one and zero at the same time, which just can't happen in a classical machine.

KWONG: OK, and this could give you more ways to do more things because of those extra fuzzy states.

BRUMFIEL: Right, right. I mean, it's just more ways to sort of code information. And then beyond that, it's possible to tie all the quantum bits together in this really fundamental way using something called entanglement that you have spent a whole episode talking about.


BRUMFIEL: Well, I think we're going to have to skip over entanglement today, but...

KWONG: Go listen back.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, go listen back. But in the fundamental sense, the idea is that you can you can use entanglement to wire all the quantum bits together and then rewire them depending on the type of problem you want to solve.

KWONG: As opposed to a classical computer, where the wiring just stays the same, and we run different programs.

BRUMFIEL: Exactly. So you put all this together, and you get this real advantage. And to understand it, Marissa gave me this analogy about why quantum computers can go faster. I liked it, and I know you will, too, because it sort of involves board games.

KWONG: Oh, I love board games.

BRUMFIEL: So first, imagine a regular computer is like a board game with square spaces, and you're trying to get to a diagonal space.

KWONG: Can I move diagonally like in checkers?

BRUMFIEL: No, no, you can't.

GIUSTINA: You have to take two steps, one up and one to the left or something.

BRUMFIEL: So then imagine a quantum computer has hexagonal spaces.

KWONG: Oh, like Settlers of Catan.

BRUMFIEL: Yep, exactly.

GIUSTINA: If you are on a hexagonal board or a board with diagonals, then you can do that in one step.

KWONG: So with a quantum computer, it's a faster way to make the same exact moves.

BRUMFIEL: Exactly, exactly, except it's potentially way faster. So one of Google's machines was able to solve a complex mathematical problem in a little over three minutes that would take a normal computer, even if it's a supercomputer, up to 10,000 years to complete.

KWONG: That's amazing.

BRUMFIEL: Yes. I mean, it's incredible. Now, there's a couple of reality checks here. First of all, the problem Google solved was a very specific problem, kind of to prove the point. No one wanted to know the answer, so it wasn't particularly useful.


BRUMFIEL: And quantum computers can't really do this for every problem. There are some really simple problems, in fact, that they're just stinky bad at, like counting.

GIUSTINA: That's not where its strength really is. And in fact, writing an algorithm to count on a quantum processor is already complicated (laughter). And then the processor isn't even that good at it,

BRUMFIEL: Like, Marissa could get her quantum computer to four. That was it.

KWONG: But I can see why she ran the test. And Google is trying to prove this point because it shows that for the right problem, these machines are really powerful. And that brings me to that question I've had since the beginning. How are these computers going to get used? What kinds of problems are they going to solve?

BRUMFIEL: That is literally the million-dollar question - right? - that the venture capitalists and Google are putting millions of dollars into answering. And to be honest, so far, nobody's sure. The scientists haven't found that killer app for quantum computers. Now, there are some hints. For example, they could be really, really good at breaking certain kinds of encryption. And governments actually started investing in quantum computers in case that turns out to be true, because, obviously, they don't want their secrets to get out.

It's also quite possible that these computers will figure out sort of these so-called optimization problems. So, like, Amazon has a warehouse. They want to ship packages in the most efficient way. A quantum computer could find the exact route for every truck leaving that warehouse to optimize that problem for fuel or speed or whatever. It's even possible they could help with searching the Internet. I mean, that's one reason Google is probably interested.

KWONG: There's just - seems like there's so many possibilities with this.

BRUMFIEL: There are. I spoke to this researcher named Rajibul Islam. He's at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He's actually a former student of Chris Monroe's, but now he's an academic researcher with no commercial ties.


BRUMFIEL: He says this isn't the first time physicists built something before they knew how it would be used.

RAJIBUL ISLAM: For example, when lasers were invented, 1960s, it was famously known as a solution waiting for a problem.

KWONG: And now lasers are used for communication and data storage and all sorts of things.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. And in some ways, quantum computing is even bigger because we're not just talking about a tool. We're talking about exploiting an entirely new set of natural laws, these quantum laws that humans just haven't really used that much before.

ISLAM: This is not just a technology, per se, right? This is really understanding the natural laws at a very fundamental level so that we can harness that power. So it's quite unprecedented from that point of view.

KWONG: And it's a - if you build it, they will come - is what I'm hearing, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, I think nobody still is quite sure whether they'll come. But I can certainly tell you that engineers and scientists like Marissa and Chris are building it. The quantum machines that Marissa works on at Google use these tiny loops of electrical current flowing in circles. That's sort of their quantum bit. Chris's team back at IonQ are using the atoms I mentioned earlier. And Chris is already thinking bigger.

MONROE: At some point, we're going to be a software business. At the ground floor, we're going to have these atoms. That's going to be a commodity. We'll have the atom division, and they'll produce the chips. It's all going to be about quantum software and mapping them to real-world problems.

BRUMFIEL: Chris says in the future, the world is just going to be very different. He says that quantum computers might be good at things like discovering advanced materials or drugs that pinpoint specific illnesses.

MONROE: I think as a culture, we will get used to starting to solve problems that we don't solve now. And that's just going to give rise to things that I don't think anybody can predict.

KWONG: Wow. It's really amazing to hear from people laying the groundwork for things we might not even know yet and just even understanding it a little bit, Geoff. I appreciate you. My brain isn't even that broken from trying. So thank you for bringing this to us.

BRUMFIEL: It's been an absolute pleasure, Emily.

KWONG: This episode was produced by tiny spinning atom Rebecca Ramirez, edited by the ever-entangled Viet Le and fact checked by the quarkiest quark, Rasha Aridi. Josh Newell collapsed the wave function for this episode. I'm Emily Kwong.

BRUMFIEL: And I'm Geoff Brumfiel.

KWONG: And you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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