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Italian Embassy Highlights Future of Quantum Computing

By Virginia Sciolino

The world of quantum computing is filled with technical and theoretical terms like qubits, superposition, annealing and quantum logic gates. Yet, the initial introductory remarks at the Italian Embassy’s June 19 discussion, “Quantum Computing: Progress and Prospects,” didn’t come from a mechanical engineer. They came from Alessandro Goppion, the CEO of Goppion S.p.A.

The Italian company is famous for designing and building display cases for protecting priceless museum features such as the “Mona Lisa.” But Goppion’s newest project is a display case for the first commercial quantum computer, the IBM Q System One.

The collaboration aims to produce a quantum computer that is both functional and beautiful, according to IBM Senior Manager Bob Wisnieff, one of the panelists at the event. “The challenge is to make it beautiful” to show that “we have begun to enter a new world.”

Using quantum mechanics, quantum computers unlock processing power to solve problems outside of the abilities of classical computers.

In conventional computers, information is stored as a series of 0s and 1s, called bits. Quantum computers store information in qubits, which can represent both 0 and 1 at the same time. This phenomenon, called superposition, allows quantum computers to hold more information and to process complex functions simultaneously.

Qubits may also be interconnected, or entangled, from a distance. This property means that, as qubits are added to a quantum computer, its processing capacity increases exponentially.

These computing capabilities could revolutionize the modern world.

Bob Wisnieff, Celia Merzbacher, Alexandra Levine, Valentina Harizanov, and Jake Taylor
From left to right, panelists Bob Wisnieff, Celia Merzbacher, Alexandra Levine, Valentina Harizanov, and Jake Taylor discussed the status and future of quantum computers.  Photos: courtesy of Goppion and the Embassy of Italy.

The panel discussion, moderated by Politico technology reporter Alexandra Levine, was composed of Wisnieff; Valentina Harizanov, mathematics professor at George Washington University; Celia Merzbacher, associate director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium; Fabio Sciarrino, professor in the Physics Department at the University of Rome la Sapienza; and Jake Taylor, assistant director for quantum information science at the White House. They discussed the status and future of quantum computers. 

Harizanov and Wisnieff explained that much of quantum computing is in its theoretical stages. Today’s quantum computers are in the developmental phase, comparable to slow, mammoth traditional computers of the 1950s.

Wisnieff said IBM is committed to further research and development to make the machines a reality in everyday living.

According to the panelists, quantum computing could unlock massive developments in energy, technology and culture. Quantum computing could “allow for driverless cars, optimize the energy grid space,” said Merzbacher

Quantum’s fluidity could also make online shopping safer, through quantum cryptography, and revolutionize linguistics. Merzbacher said that quantum’s complexity and fluidity may have the capacity to translate more accurately, potentially eliminating the need to “learn a common language, like English.”

While quantum linguistics and driverless cars may be on the horizon, quantum has less distant applications.

“We are already using CAT scans, high-bandwidth telecommunications. We are living with some applications and there are more to come,” said Taylor.

Quantum research has been publicly accessible since 2016, when IBM launched the IBM Q Experience. The online simulator allows people around the world to use the real quantum computer in New York to solve problems.

According to Wisnieff, IBM did not expect the program to become so massively popular, but it has — and it’s sparked innovation unforeseen by IBM. The IBM Q Experience has since been used in over 100 research papers and by over 60 colleges and universities around the world. 

Sciarrino hopes international commitment will lead to further innovation. Italy, he says, is “attached to the European initiative,” a 1 billion euro investment in quantum research.

IBM Q System One
The IBM Q System One inside Goppion’s display case. The IBM-Goppion partnership produced the world’s first commercial quantum computer, striving to make it beautiful and functional.  

Other nations are pursuing similar initiatives. The United Kingdom, Japan and Australia have invested upward of $100 million per year in quantum information technology. In 2018, the United States’ National Quantum Initiative Act instituted a $1.2 billion investment into quantum information science. In doing so, the U.S. joined Canada, the European Union and China as a leader in world quantum investment, with respective commitments of over $1 billion.

Taylor said that the United States is “choosing to maintain leadership and collaboration with international efforts [including the] EU flagship program.” The U.S. is allowing “the presidential budget and agencies to take on expanding roles, keeping regulation out of the way, and examining new opportunities.”

When asked by Levine about the importance of the bilateral relationship between Italy and the United States, Sciarrino said that Italy is following America’s example to “fill the gap regarding the involvement of industry.”

The panelists explained that, aside from international and university outreach, quantum information technology needs to partner with companies during the research and development phase.

The panel hopes that further collaboration, both international and industrial, will spark quantum experimentation and technological innovation. 

Take the IBM-Goppion partnership. Because qubits are extremely sensitive and must be maintained at sub-zero temperatures, Goppion’s display case is isolated, air-tight and cryogenic.

The challenges presented by quantum computers require industrial innovation. So, industry partnerships could generate spin-off technologies, from low-temperature electronics to ultrasonic emission. 

The supply chain could be created, “but fields of study need to come a long way,” said Wisnieff. Government support, international collaboration and industry partnerships may pave the way for the manufacturing advances that are necessary to expand the field. 

For that to happen, governments and industry have to be interested in quantum computing. “It’s important to realize how exciting [quantum] is. It’s about getting the nation together to realize the possibility,” Taylor said.

One way to get people excited is to use a display case to showcase the beauty, mystery and life-changing potential of quantum computers. “The first message of the case,” said Goppion, “is time and space transportation.”


Virginia Sciolino is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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