Late last year VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland launched a project to acquire Finland’s first quantum computer. The first phase of this three-phase project is seeking to bolster Finland’s ability to design and build quantum computers, and to create a competence base for future applications. The design and construction of the quantum computer will be carried out as an innovation partnership.
“The building of Finland’s first quantum computer was initiated in December 2020 and It will be built in cooperation together with VTT and the leading quantum computing start-up IQM,” Antti Vasara, CEO of VTT says. “The computer will be located at VTT premises in Espoo, Finland. We are progressing as planned and aim to have the first, 5-qubit quantum computer running this year. Then we scale the qubit count up in phases, and we should have 50 qubits in 2024.
“We wanted the quantum computer to be built in collaboration, and operated by VTT personnel, so that we have the possibility to learn from all aspects of the quantum computer: qubits; control electronics and software; and algorithms. We at VTT are also developing and delivering some of the components of the computer, like the qubit read-out amplifiers, the travelling wave (Josephson) parametric amplifiers, or TWPAs ourselves.”
The quantum leap
Quantum technology will revolutionise many industrial sectors, and will already begin spawning new, nationally significant business and research opportunities over the next few years. Advancements in quantum technology and the technological leap afforded by quantum computers (the quantum leap) – will enable unprecedented computing power and the ability to solve problems that are impossible for today’s supercomputers.
Quantum computer uses qubits, or quantum bits, for computing. Whereas a classical bit can only have a value of 0 or 1, the qubit can be in a superposition of both states, 0 and 1, at the same time. This is counter-intuitive, but perfectly allowed by quantum mechanics. Qubit can be in both states at the same time, but only when you measure the qubit, it is observed to be fully in either 0 or 1. But the qubit can use both these states in the computation.
For example, if you have an optimisation problem with many input parameters, a classical computer must solve the problem many times for different input parameter values to find the optimal solution. But a quantum computer can code all the possible input values at the same time to the qubits and calculate the optimal solution in one run. Thus, you get quantum speed-up in computation.
Overcoming emerging challenges
The goal is to create a unique ecosystem for the development and application of quantum technology in Finland, in collaboration with companies and universities. VTT hopes to partner with progressive Finnish companies from a variety of sectors during the various phases of implementation and application.
“In the future, we will encounter challenges that cannot be met using current methods. Quantum computing will play an important role in solving these kinds of problems. For example, the quantum computers of the future will be able to accurately model viruses and pharmaceuticals, or design new materials in a way that is impossible with traditional methods,” Vasara says.
Through this project, VTT is seeking to be a world leader in quantum technology and its application.
“The pandemic has shocked not only Finland’s economy but also the entire world economy, and it will take us some time to recover from the consequences,” Vasara adds. “To safeguard economic recovery and future competitiveness, it is now even more important than ever to make investments in innovation and future technologies that will create demand for Finnish companies’ products and services.”
Exactly what role quantum computers will play in the future computing landscape is still up for debate. Vasara believes that at least in the beginning, they will be used for specific problems in computing centres, in much the same way supercomputers are currently employed. “But the quantum computer is a completely new kind of tool, and it is very hard to foresee where and how it will penetrate our living,” he adds. “We only know the effect will be huge in the long run.
“In a sense, we are now in a similar state with quantum computers that we were with the classical computers in the 1950’s when computers were big and rare. Compare it to today – we all use several computers each day. It is hard to imagine where quantum computers will be in 30, 50 or 70 years.
Scaling up the technology
Quantum computing is a pervasive technology. In the long run it will have an impact in all industry fields, and in our everyday life. “Now is the time to act,” Vasara continues. “The basic research in quantum computers is there. Quantum computing is not a theoretical abstraction anymore. Quantum supremacy has been shown in specific problems. Now it is about how and who scales the technology most efficiently into practical use.
“Decades of top-notch research in quantum physics and microelectronics, combined with industrial know-how in digitalisation and electronics, enables Finland to become a significant player in quantum technology. Building a quantum computer in Finland brings us to the game, both in quantum technology hardware, and in algorithms and the application of quantum computers in industry.”
The next step is commercialising the technology with companies such as IBM, Honeywell and Google leading the charge. “If you calculate all the funding the quantum computer start-ups are collecting, you can say that quantum computing is a business already,” Vasara comments. “There are hardware and software companies out there, commercialising quantum computing as we speak. It remains to be seen, who, and what concept will finally be the commercially most viable one. For longer term commercial success, larger quantum computers are needed so that we achieve quantum speed-up in solving real-life problems.”
On the face of it more computing equates to more power consumption, something that goes against the drive to make the industry more sustainable, but as Vasara explains, the opposite is true. He firmly believes that the technology can have a profound effect on sustainability both directly and indirectly. “If a quantum computer can solve a problem much faster than a supercomputer, it will also save power – and lots of it,” he says. “The footprint of the industry will be smaller as well. But personally, I find that the biggest impact will be in the sustainability handprint of quantum computers. Quantum computers will provide solutions to complicated systemic problems, such as climate change and this will be by far their biggest contribution to sustainability.”
Chasing undetermined benefits
However, to reach that utopian vision there are hurdles to overcome and these are not insignificant. “First we need to demonstrate quantum speed-up in some real-life problems,” Vasara concludes. “For that, a quantum computer with more qubits is needed with the related quantum algorithms. In the first phase, quantum computers will be used with classical computers, combining the advantages of both technologies, the insane quantum computing power allied with all the human interface hardware and software of classical computers. In this phase we will already turn a significant part of currently impossible engineering problems into possible.
“In the long run I don’t believe our imagination is enough to think through what will be possible. I am sure we will miniaturise and make quantum computers mass market and ubiquitous. At the same time, we are already seeing that we can create new types of quantum states of matter and we do not yet know how to apply those. It is very hard to estimate what the quantum computer will be capable of. I bet nobody foresaw 50 years ago what would be possible in the 2020s thanks to the invention of microprocessors.”