Artificial intelligence is the magic of the moment but this is a story about what’s next, something incomprehensible. Tomorrow, IBM will announce an advance in an entirely new kind of computing–one that may solve problems in minutes that would take today’s supercomputers millions of years. That’s the difference in quantum computing, a technology being developed at IBM, Google and others. It’s named for quantum physics, which describes the forces of the subatomic realm. The science is deep and we can’t scratch the surface, but we hope to explain enough so that you won’t be blindsided by a breakthrough that could transform civilization.
The quantum computer pushes the limits of knowledge–new science, new engineering– all leading to this processor that computes with the atomic forces that created the universe.
Dario Gil: I think this moment, it feels to us like the pioneers of the 1940s and 50s that were building the first digital computers.
Dario Gil is something of a quantum crusader. Spanish-born with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Gil is head of research at IBM.
Scott Pelley: How much faster is this than say, the world’s best supercomputer today?
Dario Gil: We are now in a stage where we can do certain calculations with these systems that would take the biggest supercomputers in the world to be able to do some similar calculation. But the beauty of it, is that we see that we’re gonna continue to expand that capability, such that not even a million or a billion of those supercomputers connected together could do the calculations of these future machines. So, we’ve come a long way. And the most exciting part is that we have a road map and a journey right now, where that is going to continue to increase at a rate that is gonna be shocking.
Scott Pelley: I’m not sure the world is prepared for this change.
Dario Gil: Definitely not.
To understand the change, go back to 1947 and the invention of a switch called a transistor.
Computers have processed information on transistors ever since, getting faster as more transistors were squeezed onto a chip–billions of them today.
But it takes that many because each transistor holds information in only two states. It’s either on or it’s off– like a coin– heads or tails. Quantum abandons transistors and encodes information on electrons that behave like this coin we created with animation. Electrons behave in a way so that they are heads and tails and everything in between. You’ve gone from handling one bit of information at a time on a transistor to exponentially more data.
Michio Kaku: You can see that there’s a fantastic amount of information stored, when you can look at all possible angles, not just up or down.
Physicist Michio Kaku of the City University of New York, already calls today’s computers “classical.” He uses a maze to explain quantum’s difference.
Michio Kaku: Let’s look at a classical computer calculating how a mouse navigates a maze. It is painful. One by one, it has to map every single left turn, right turn, left turn, right turn before it finds the goal. Now a quantum computer scans all possible routes simultaneously. This is amazing. How many turns are there? Hundreds of possible turns, right? Quantum computers do it all at once.
Kaku’s book, titled “Quantum Supremacy,” explains the stakes.
Michio Kaku: We’re looking at a race, a race between China, between IBM, Google, Microsoft, Honeywell, all the big boys are in this race to create a workable, operationally efficient quantum computer. Because the nation or company that does this, will rule the world economy.
But a reliable, general purpose, quantum computer is a tough climb yet. Maybe that’s why this wall is in the lobby of Google’s quantum lab in California.
Here, we got an inside look, starting with a microscope’s view of what replaces the transistor.
Google employee: This right here is one qubit and this is another qubit, this is a five qubit chain.
Those crosses, at the bottom, are qubits, short for quantum bits. They hold the electrons and act like artificial atoms. Unlike transistors, each additional qubit doubles the computer’s power. It’s exponential. so, while 20 transistors are 20 times more powerful than one. Twenty qubits are a million times more powerful than one.
Charina Chou: So this gets positioned right here on the fridge.
Charina Chou, chief operating officer of Google’s lab, showed us the processor that holds the qubits. Much of that above chills the qubits to what physicists call near absolute zero.
Scott Pelley: Near absolute zero I understand is about 460 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. So that’s about as cold as anything can get.
Charina Chou: Yes, almost as cold as possible.
That temperature, inside a sealed computer, is one of the coldest places in the universe. The deep freeze eliminates electrical resistance and isolates the qubits from outside vibrations so they can be controlled with an electro-magnetic field. The qubits must vibrate in unison. But that’s a tough trick called coherence.
Scott Pelley: Once you have achieved coherence of the qubits, how easy is that to maintain?
Charina Chou: It’s really hard. Coherence is very challenging.
Coherence is fleeting. In all similar machines, coherence breaks down constantly–creating errors.
Charina Chou: We’re making about one error in every hundred or so steps. Ultimately, we think we’re gonna need about one error in every million or so steps. That would probably be identified as one of the biggest barriers.
Mitigating those errors and extending coherence time while scaling up to larger machines are the challenges facing German-American scientist Hartmut Neven, who founded Google’s lab, and its casual style, in 2012.
Scott Pelley: Can the problems that are in the way of quantum computing be solved?
Hartmut Neven: I should confess, my subtitle here is chief optimist. After having said this, I would say at this point, we don’t need any more fundamental breakthroughs. We need little improvements here and there. If we have all the pieces together, we just need to integrate them well to build larger and larger systems.
Scott Pelley: And you think that all of this will be integrated into a system in what period of time?
Hartmut Neven: Yeah. We often say we wanna do it by the end of the decade so that we can use this Kennedy quote, “Get it done by the end of the decade.”
Scott Pelley: The end of this decade?
Hartmut Neven: Yes.
Scott Pelley: Five or six years?
Hartmut Neven: Yes.
That’s about the timeline Dario Dil predicts. And the IBM research director told us something surprising.
Scott Pelley: There are problems that classical computers can never solve.
Dario Gil: Can never solve. And I think this is an important point because we’re accustomed to say, “ah computers get better.” Actually, there are many, many problems that are so complex that we can make that statement that, “Actually, classical computers will never be able to solve that problem.” Not now, not 100 years from now, not 1,000 years from now.” You actually require a different way to represent information and process information. That’s what quantum gives you.
Quantum could give us answers to impossible problems in physics, chemistry, engineering and medicine. Which is why IBM and Cleveland Clinic have installed one of the first quantum computers to leave the lab for the real world.
Serpil Erzurum: It takes way too much time to find the solutions we need.
We sat down with Dario Gil and Dr. Serpil Erzurum, chief research officer at Cleveland Clinic. She told us health care would be transformed if quantum computers can model the behavior of proteins- the molecules that regulate all life. Proteins change shape to change function in ways too complex to follow. and when they get it wrong that causes disease.
Serpil Erzurum: It takes on many shapes, many, many shapes, depending upon what it’s doing, and where it is, and which other protein it’s with. I need to understand the shape it’s in when it’s doing an interaction or a function that I don’t want it to do for that patient. Cancer, autoimmunity. It’s a problem. We are limited completely by the computational ability to look at the structure in real time for any, even one, molecule.
Cleveland Clinic is so proud of its quantum computer they set it up in a lobby. Behind the glass, that shiny silver cylinder encloses the kind of cooling system and processor you saw earlier. Quantum is not solving the protein problem yet. This is more of a trial run to introduce researchers to quantum’s potential.
Scott Pelley: The people using this machine, are they having to learn an entirely different way to communicate with a computer?
Dario Gil: I think that’s what’s really nice, that you actually just use a regular laptop, and you write a program very much like you would write a traditional program. But when you, you know, click, you know, “go” and “run,” it just happens to run on a very different kind of computer.
There are a half dozen competing designs in the race. China named quantum a top national priority and the U.S. government is spending nearly a billion dollars a year on research. The first change comes next year when the U.S. publishes new standards for encryption because quantum is expected one day to break the codes that lock everything from national secrets to credit cards. Tomorrow, IBM will unveil its Quantum System Two with three times the qubits as the machine you saw in Cleveland. This past August, we saw System Two under construction.
Dario Gil: It’s a machine unlike anything we have ever built.
Scott Pelley: And this is it.
Dario Gil: And this is it.
IBM’s Dario Gil told us System Two has the room to expand to thousands of qubits.
Scott Pelley: What are the chances that this is one of those things that’s gonna be ready in five years and always will be?
Dario Gil: We don’t see an obstacle right now that would prevent us from building systems that will have tens of thousands and even a 100 thousand qubits working with each other. So we are highly confident that we will get there.
Of all the amazing things we heard, it was physicist Michio Kaku who led us down the path to the biggest idea of all. He said we were walking through a quantum computer. Processing information with subatomic particles is how the universe works.
Michio Kaku: You know when I look at the night sky, I see stars, I look at the flowers, the trees I realize that it’s all quantum, the splendor of the universe itself. The language of the universe is the language of the quantum.
Learning that language may bring more than inconceivable speed. Reverse engineering nature’s computer could be a window on creation itself.
Produced by Denise Schrier Cetta and Katie Brennan. Broadcast associates, Michelle Karim and Eliza Costas. Edited by Warren Lustig