Is quantum computing worth all the effort being poured into it or should we just wait for classical computing to catch up? An IBM blog today posed those questions and, you won’t be surprised, offers a firm “it’s worth it” answer. IBM is a long-time quantum pioneer and the blog by Bob Sutor, VP, IBM Q Ecosystem and Strategy, coincides with the publishing of a new IBM-led paper (Quantum advantage with shallow circuits, Science) that offers a proof of quantum computing advantage over classical computer for a class of problems.
The work – by researchers Sergey Bravyi of IBM Research, David Gosset of the University of Waterloo Institute for Quantum Computing, and Robert König of the Institute for Advanced Study and Zentrum Mathematik, Technische Universität München – shows that so-called shallow quantum circuits are inherently more powerful than classical counterparts on some tasks. This has added practical importance given the constraints of today’s small, noisy quantum computers, which can only handle shallow circuits.
The researchers write: “Can constant-depth quantum circuits solve a computational problem that constant-depth classical circuits cannot? [Or] put differently, we ask whether constant-time parallel quantum algorithms are more powerful than their classical probabilistic counterparts. We show that the answer to the above question is YES, even if the quantum circuit is composed of nearest-neighbor gates acting on a 2D grid whereas the only restriction on the constant-depth classical (probabilistic) circuit is having a bounded fan-in.
“In particular, the gates in the classical circuit may be long-range (i.e., they need not be geometrically local in 2D or otherwise) and may have unbounded fan-out. We emphasize that our result constitutes a provable separation and does not rely on any conjectures or assumptions concerning complexity classes. Formally, our result implies that there is a search (relational) problem solved by SQCs but not by NC0 circuits, even if we allow the classical circuit access to random input bits drawn from an arbitrary distribution depending on the input size.”
Leaving aside the details of their work for a moment, the proof opens new avenues for algorithm and application development using their approach. For quite some time there has been a “where are the new algorithms and show me the applications” vibe among many quantum watchers even as industry, academia, and governments ramped up quantum research efforts. Clearly, quantum computing remains in a nascent stage; that said, IBM’s paper is step forward.
Sutor framed the challenge quite nicely in his blog:
“In 1994 Peter Shor formulated his eponymous algorithm that demonstrated how to factor integers on a quantum computer almost exponentially faster than any known method on a classical computer. This is getting a lot of attention because some people are getting concerned that we may be able to break prime-factor-based encryption like RSA much faster on a quantum computer than the thousands of years it would take using known classical methods. However, people skip several elements of the fine print.
“First, we would need millions and millions of extremely high quality qubits with low error rates and long coherence time for this to work. Today we have 50.
“Second, there’s the bit about “faster than any known method on a classical computer.” Since we do not know an efficient way of factoring arbitrary large numbers on classical computers, this appears to be a hard problem. It’s not proved to be a hard problem. If someone next week comes up with an amazing new approach using a classical computer that factors as fast as Shor’s might, then the conjecture of it being hard is false. We just don’t know.
“Is everything like that? Are we just waiting for people to be more clever on classical computers so that any hoped-for quantum computing advantage might disappear? The answer is no. Quantum computers really are faster at some things. We can prove it. This is important.”
For many in the HPC community much about quantum computing remains unfamiliar. Most of us think about von Neumann architectures and gates etched in silicon and data moving through them. Quantum chips are almost the reverse. Qubits, the registers of the data if you will, are ‘etched’ in silicon and you operate on them by applying external signals, the gates, to them.
IBM scientist Bravyi briefly described the shallow circuits at the heart of the latest work, “A quantum circuit is a sequence of elementary operations that we call gates. Each gate can touch only one or two quantum bits (qubits). Qubits start out as 0s or 1s, we perform gates on them involving superposition and entanglement, and then we measure every qubit. Once measured, we again have 0s and 1s.”
“Shallow quantum circuits are those in which each qubit participates only in a few gates before it has been measured. The maximum number of gates per qubit is called the depth of a circuit. Near-term quantum devices can implement only shallow (constant-depth) circuits because qubits quickly decohere and become chaotic,” he said. (Below is a schematic diagram of the quantum circuit researchers propose taken from the paper.)
Bravyi emphasized the broad impact of the team’s work. “The research in this paper conclusively shows that quantum computers can do some things better than classical computers can. The proof is the first demonstration of unconditional separation between quantum and classical algorithms, albeit in the special case of constant-depth computations.
“In practice, short depth circuits are part of the implementations of algorithms, so this result does not specifically say how and where quantum computers might be better for particular business problems. But it is a foundational element that other scientists will be able to experiment with, soon.”
“The IBM Q team is preparing a demonstration of the algorithm on one of its current quantum computers, to be ready in the coming weeks. The goal of the demo, using Qiskit in a Jupyter notebook, is to start to test the circuits with simulators. By using a noisy simulator we learn how such circuits will eventually run on actual hardware. All this goes to giving us fundamental knowledge which helps us advance how we build algorithms and tune the hardware,” said Bravyi.
IBM was the first to provide widespread access to a quantum computing development platform via the IBM Q cloud platform, launched in 2016. Since then, IBM reports more than 100,000 people have used IBM Q.
Link to Sergey Bravyi video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xogOLp36GlA