End of the Age of Silicon
A revolution is coming.
In 2019 and 2020, two bombshells rocked the world of science. Two groups announced that they had achieved quantum supremacy, the fabled point at which a radically new type of computer, called a quantum computer, could decisively outperform an ordinary digital supercomputer on specific tasks. This heralded an upheaval that can change the entire computing landscape and overturn every aspect of our daily life.
First, Google revealed that their Sycamore quantum computer could solve a mathematical problem in 200 seconds that would take 10,000 years on the world’s fastest supercomputer. According to MIT’s Technology Review, Google called this a major breakthrough. They likened it to the launch of Sputnik or the Wright brothers’ first flight. It was “the threshold of a new era of machines that would make today’s mightiest computer look like an abacus.”
Then the Quantum Innovation Institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences went even further. They claimed their quantum computer was 100 trillion times faster than an ordinary supercomputer.
IBM vice president Bob Sutor, commenting on the meteoric rise of quantum computers, states flatly, “I think it’s going to be the most important computing technology of this century.”
Quantum computers have been called the “Ultimate Computer,” a decisive leap in technology with profound implications for the entire world. Instead of computing on tiny transistors, they compute on the tiniest possible object, the atoms themselves, and hence can easily surpass the power of our greatest supercomputer. Quantum computers might usher in an entirely new age for the economy, society, and our way of life.
But quantum computers are more than just another powerful computer. They are a new type of computer that can tackle problems that digital computers can never solve, even with an infinite amount of time. For example, digital computers can never accurately calculate how atoms combine to create crucial chemical reactions, especially those that make life possible. Digital computers can only compute on digital tape, consisting of a series of 0s and 1s, which are too crude to describe the delicate waves of electrons dancing deep inside a molecule. For example, when tediously computing the paths taken by a mouse in a maze, a digital computer has to painfully analyze each possible path, one after the other. A quantum computer, however, simultaneously analyzes all possible paths at the same time, with lightning speed.
This in turn has heightened an intense rivalry between competing computer giants, which are all racing to create the world’s most powerful quantum computer. In 2021, IBM unveiled its own quantum computer, called the Eagle, which has taken the lead, with more computing power than all previous models.
But these records are like pie crusts—they are made to be broken.
Given the profound implications of this revolution, it is not surprising that many of the world’s leading corporations have invested heavily in this new technology. Google, Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Rigetti, and Honeywell are all building quantum computer prototypes. The leaders of Silicon Valley realize that they must keep pace with this revolution or be left in the dust.
IBM, Honeywell, and Rigetti Computing have put their first-generation quantum computers on the internet to whet the appetite of a curious public, so that people may gain their first direct exposure to quantum computation. One can experience this new quantum revolution firsthand by connecting to a quantum computer on the internet. For example, the “IBM Q Experience,” launched in 2016, makes fifteen quantum computers available to the public via the internet for free. Samsung and JPMorgan Chase are among these users. Already, 2,000 people, from schoolchildren to professors, use them every month.
Wall Street has taken a keen interest in this technology. IonQ became the first major quantum computing company to go public, raising $600 million in its IPO in 2021. Even more startling, the rivalry is so intense that a new start-up, PsiQuantum, without any commercial prototype on the market or any track record of previous products, suddenly soared on Wall Street to a $3.1 billion valuation, with the ability to capture $665 million in funding almost overnight. Business analysts wrote that they had rarely seen anything like this, a new company riding the tide of feverish speculation and sensational headlines to such heights.
Deloitte, the consulting and accounting firm, estimates that the market for quantum computers should reach hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2020s and tens of billions of dollars in the 2030s. No one knows when quantum computers will enter the commercial marketplace and alter the economic landscape, but predictions are being revised all the time to match the unprecedented speed of scientific discovery in this field. Christopher Savoie, CEO of Zapata Computing, speaking about the meteoric rise of quantum computers, says, “It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.”
Even the U.S. Congress has expressed keen interest in helping jump-start this new quantum technology. Realizing that other nations have already generously funded research in quantum computers, in December 2018, Congress passed the National Quantum Initiative Act to provide seed money to help spark new research. It mandated the formation of two to five new National Quantum Information Science Research Centers, to be funded with $80 million annually.
In 2021, the U.S. government also announced an investment of $625 million in quantum technologies, to be supervised by the Department of Energy. Giant corporations like Microsoft, IBM, and Lockheed Martin also contributed an additional $340 million to this project.
The Chinese and the U.S. are not the only ones using government funds to accelerate this technology. The U.K. government is now constructing the National Quantum Computing Centre, which will serve as a hub for research on quantum computing, to be built at the Harwell lab of the Science and Technology Facilities Council in Oxfordshire. Spurred on by the government, there were thirty quantum computer start-ups founded in the U.K. by the end of 2019.
Industry analysts recognize that it’s a trillion-dollar gamble. There are no guarantees in this highly competitive field. Despite the impressive technical achievements made by Google and others in recent years, a workable quantum computer that can solve real-world problems is still many years in the future. A mountain of hard work still lies before us. Some critics even claim it could be a wild-goose chase. But computer companies realize that unless they have a foot in the door, it might slam shut on them.
Ivan Ostojic, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey, says, “Companies in the industries where quantum will have the greatest potential for complete disruption should get involved in quantum right now.” Areas like chemistry, medicine, oil and gas, transportation, logistics, banking, pharmaceuticals, and cybersecurity are ripe for major change. He adds, “In principle, quantum will be relevant for all CIOs as it will accelerate solutions to a large range of problems. Those companies need to become owners of quantum capability.”
Vern Brownell, former CEO of D-Wave Systems, a Canadian quantum computing company, remarks, “We believe we’re right on the cusp of providing capabilities you can’t get with classical computing.”
Many scientists believe that we are now entering an entirely new era, with shock waves comparable to those created by the introduction of the transistor and the microchip. Companies without direct ties to computer production, like the automotive giant Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, are already investing in this new technology, sensing that quantum computers may pave the way for new developments in their own industries. Julius Marcea, an executive with rival BMW, has written, “We are excited to investigate the transformative potential of quantum computing on the automotive industry and are committed to extending the limits of engineering performance.” Other large companies, like Volkswagen and Airbus, have set up quantum computing divisions of their own to explore how this may revolutionize their business.
Pharmaceutical companies are also watching developments in this field intently, realizing that quantum computers may be able to simulate complex chemical and biological processes that are far beyond the capability of digital computers. Huge facilities devoted to testing millions of drugs may one day be replaced by “virtual laboratories” that test drugs in cyberspace. Some have feared that perhaps this might one day replace chemists. But Derek Lowe, who runs a blog about drug discovery, says, “It is not that machines are going to replace chemists. It’s that the chemists who use machines will replace those that don’t.”
Even the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland, the biggest science machine in the world, which slams protons together at 14 trillion electron volts to re-create the conditions of the early universe, now uses quantum computers to help sift through mountains of data. In one second, they can analyze up to one trillion bytes generated by about one billion particle collisions. Perhaps one day quantum computers will unravel the secrets of the creation of the universe.
Back in 2012, when physicist John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology first coined the term “quantum supremacy,” many scientists shook their heads. It would take decades, if not centuries, they thought, before quantum computers could outperform a digital computer. After all, computing on individual atoms, rather than wafers of silicon chips, was considered fiendishly difficult. The slightest vibration or noise can disturb the delicate dance of atoms in a quantum computer. But these stunning announcements of quantum supremacy have so far shredded naysayers’ gloomy predictions. Now the concern is shifting to how fast the field is developing.
The tremors caused by these remarkable achievements have also shaken boardrooms and top secret intelligence agencies around the world. Documents leaked by whistleblowers have shown that the CIA and the National Security Agency are closely following developments in the field. This is because quantum computers are so powerful that, in principle, they could break all known cybercodes. This means that the secrets carefully guarded by governments, which are their crown jewels containing their most sensitive information, are vulnerable to attack, as are the best-kept secrets of corporations and even individuals. This situation is so urgent that even the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which sets national policy and standards, recently issued guidelines to help large corporations and agencies plan for the inevitable transition to this new era. NIST has already announced they expect that by 2029 quantum computers will be able to break 128-bit AES encryption, the code used by many companies.
Writing in Forbes magazine, Ali El Kaafarani notes, “That’s a pretty terrifying prospect for any organization with sensitive information to protect.”
The Chinese have spent $10 billion on their National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences because they are determined to be a leader in this vital, fast-moving field. Nations spend tens of billions to jealously guard these codes. Armed with a quantum computer, a hacker might conceivably break into any digital computer on the planet, thereby disrupting industries and even the military. All sensitive information may become available to the highest bidder. Financial markets might also be thrown into turmoil by quantum computers breaking into the inner sanctum of Wall Street. Quantum computers might also unlock the blockchain, creating havoc in the bitcoin market as well. Deloitte has estimated that about 25 percent of bitcoins are potentially vulnerable to hacking by a quantum computer.
“Those running blockchain projects will likely be keeping a nervous eye on quantum computing advancements,” concludes a report by CB Insights, a data software IT company.
So what is at stake is nothing less than the world economy, which is heavily wedded to digital technology. Wall Street banks use computers to keep track of multibillion-dollar transactions. Engineers use computers to design skyscrapers, bridges, and rockets. Artists depend on computers to animate Hollywood blockbusters. Pharmaceutical companies use computers to develop their next wonder drug. Children rely on computers to play the latest video game with their friends. And we crucially depend on cell phones to give us instantaneous news from our friends, associates, and relatives. All of us have had the experience of being thrown into a panic when we cannot find our cell phone. In fact, it is extremely difficult to name any human activity that hasn’t been turned upside down by computers. We are so dependent on them that if somehow all the world’s computers suddenly came to an abrupt halt, civilization would be thrown into chaos. That is why scientists are following the development of quantum computers so intently.
End of Moore’s Law
What is driving all this turmoil and controversy?
The rise of quantum computers is a sign that the Age of Silicon is gradually coming to a close. For the past half-century, the explosion of computer power has been described by Moore’s law, named after Intel founder Gordon Moore. Moore’s law states that computer power doubles every eighteen months. This deceptively simple law has tracked the remarkable exponential increase in computer power, which is unprecedented in human history. There is no other invention which has had such a pervasive impact in such a brief period of time.
Computers have gone through many stages throughout their history, each time vastly increasing their power and causing major societal change. Moore’s law, in fact, can be extended all the way back to the 1800s, to the age of mechanical computers. Back then, engineers used spinning cylinders, cogs, gears, and wheels to perform simple arithmetic operations. At the turn of the last century, these calculators began to use electricity, replacing gears with relays and cables. During World War II, computers used vast arrays of vacuum tubes to break secret government codes. In the postwar era, the transition was made from vacuum tubes to transistors, which could be miniaturized to microscopic size, facilitating continued advances in speed and power.
Back in the 1950s, mainframe computers could only be purchased by large corporations and government agencies like the Pentagon and international banks. They were powerful (for example, the ENIAC could do in thirty seconds what might take a human twenty hours). But they were expensive, bulky, and often took up an entire floor of an office building. The microchip revolutionized this entire process, decreasing in size over the decades so that a typical chip the size of your fingernail can now contain about one billion transistors. Today, cell phones used by children to play video games are more powerful than a roomful of those lumbering dinosaurs once used by the Pentagon. We take for granted that the computer in our pocket exceeds the power of the computers used during the Cold War.
All things must pass. Each transition in the development of the computer rendered the previous technology obsolete in a process of creative destruction. Moore’s law is already slowing down and may eventually come to a halt. This is because microchips are so compact that the thinnest layer of transistors is about twenty atoms across. When they reach about five atoms across, the location of the electron becomes uncertain, and they can leak out and short-circuit the chip or generate so much heat that the chips melt. In other words, by the laws of physics, Moore’s law must eventually collapse if we continue to use primarily silicon. We could be witnessing the end of the Age of Silicon. The next leap might be the post-Silicon or Quantum Age.
Copyright © 2023 by Michio Kaku. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.