Why the government, Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank are backing quantum computing

The first microchips were gigantic (pictured), but they could soon be on the atomic level. Getty

Quantum computing, while still a while off, could revolutionise the way the world works.

As this week’s innovation statement notes, the processing power of quantum computers could solve problems in minutes that take modern computers centuries.

“This would have a transformational impact on Australian and global businesses, from banks undertaking financial analysis, transport companies planning optimal logistic routes, or improvements in medical drug design” the statement reads.

This is why the government has pledged a $26 million grant to support silicon quantum computing in Australia.

Over five years, the money has been earmarked for the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology (CQC2T) at the University of New South Wales.

Professor Michelle Simmons, who leads the UNSW program, has estimated it could cost $70 million – $80 million to build a quantum computer in Silicon Valley by 2020.

The Commonwealth Bank, which last year committed $5 million in funding over 5 years for the centre, announced this week it will increase this investment by $10 million.

Telstra also announced this week that it would contribute $10 million in in-kind support over five years.

“As well as a financial commitment, we will also contribute resources from our data scientist team, including the skills and knowledge of Telstra’s chief scientist, Dr Hugh Bradlow,” said Telstra CEO Andrew Penn.

“The possibilities of quantum computing are very real for us, and we want to help those possibilities become a reality.”

The reason for the excitement is the advance of computing power. For the last 50 years, the number of transistors on a microchip has doubled roughly every 18 months – this largely explains the increase in performance and decrease in cost.

If this trend – referred to as Moore’s law – continues apace, the circuits on a processor by 2030 will be on an atomic scale. The next step is quantum computing.

Quantum computing, which harnesses atoms and molecules to perform processing and memory tasks, has not yet been achieved on a practical level, although basic quantum computers have been built.

Unlike today’s computers, which work by manipulating bits in a binary state – they are either 0 or 1 – quantum computers aren’t limited to just two states. In fact, the quibits – atoms, ions, photons or electrons – within a quantum computer can be a 1, 0 or both at the same time. This means a quantum computer could potentially work on a million computations at once, while our current computers work on just one.

There have been several advances in the past decades, from quantum computers that could find the prime factors of a number to solving a sudoku puzzle. But nothing close to what we would think of as a computer.

CQC2T has recently taken a big step forward, proving in October that quantum computer code can be written and manipulated in a silicon microchip. They are the first time to do so, and it sets them up to complete their goal by 2020.

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