July 18, 2024

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What’s after AI? The next watershed technology could be quantum computing

Artificial intelligence commands the attention of corporate giants and political leaders but a global race is underway to develop what some experts consider the next transformative technology: quantum computing.

The computers, which draw on theoretical physics, could drive advances in everything from drug research to stock investing to encryption, promising an economic boon for the companies and nations that lead its development, some experts told ABC News.

Google, Microsoft and Intel are among the companies trying to achieve breakthroughs in quantum computing. Tech firm IBM announced on Friday its first-ever quantum computer on a university campus, unveiling the machine at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or RPI, which is located in Troy, New York.

Here’s what to know about how quantum computing works, why the technology matters and what’s significant about the new machine at RPI:

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computing uses the principles of abstract physics to supercharge a machine’s computational horsepower well beyond what’s found in an everyday computer.

The next-generation technology stands in contrast with classical computing, or binary computing, which relies on tiny units of data called bits. Those bits are oriented as either ones or zeroes, indicating on/off switches that make up the basic inputs of any task performed by a computer.

On the other hand, quantum computing draws on a fundamental concept of quantum physics known as “superposition,” which means a single entity can occupy multiple states at the same time, Daniel Lidar, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, told ABC News.

“In some sense, this is one computer performing many calculations all at once,” Lidar said. “In a standard case, you’d need lots of computers performing simultaneous calculations.”

Three decades ago, a physicist named Peter Shor proved that quantum computing could break a common form of internet encryption within just a few hours; whereas a standard computer would take billions of years to achieve the same task, Lidar added.

“Ever since that discovery, there’s been a worldwide race to build these computers,” Lidar said.

PHOTO: The student union builiding is seen at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Feb. 2, 2018 in Troy, N.Y.

The student union builiding is seen at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Feb. 2, 2018 in Troy, N.Y.

Albany Times Union via Getty Images

What’s at stake with the development of quantum computing?

The countries and firms that develop quantum computing stand to gain a significant advantage in an array of lucrative industries, some experts told ABC News.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company identified four industries most likely to see early economic impact from quantum computing: automotive, chemicals, financial services and life sciences, according to a report last year. Across those four industries, the technology could add a combined $1.3 trillion in value by 2035, the report said.

In 2022, President Joe Biden visited IBM’s quantum data center in Poughkeepsie, New York, which features the world’s largest collection of quantum computers, the company said in a news release at the time.

“The government that will hold the first truly useful quantum computer will have a power at its fingertips that is breathtaking,” Lidar said. “That’s why many governments are heavily invested and companies are betting billions of dollars on this field.”

While thousands of researchers worldwide work out the kinks of quantum computing, concrete applications remain 5 to 10 years away, Lidar said.

What is the significance of the new quantum computer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute?

The IBM quantum computer at RPI marks the first of its kind on a university campus.

The machine will help students push quantum computing from experimental uses to real-life applications, Jay Gambetta, IBM fellow and vice president of Quantum Computing, told ABC News.

“Getting quantum computing into their hands is essential for us to create this industry,” Gambetta said.

Thirty percent of the university’s sophomore class major in computer programming, RPI President Martin Schmidt told ABC News. The newly unveiled quantum computer will equip them with direct training in one of the latest advancements in the tech field, he added.

“Everybody’s going to be scrambling for talent,” he said. “There are going to be some people that just really make this thing sing. And I want to see that magic happen.”