Honey, I've shrunk the Quantum Computer!

22nd December 2022
Honey, I've shrunk the Quantum Computer!
A vision of the future: A classroom equipped with a quantum computer for every student

By Anand Parthasarathy
December 22, 2022: It is just over three years since  Google’s  India-born CEO, Sundar Pichai announced to an astonished world that the company  had achieved ‘Quantum Supremacy’ – a long awaited milestone in Quantum Computing: He said they had assembled a machine that  performed a test calculation in 200 seconds, that would have taken conventional supercomputers thousands of years to accomplish.
Pichai, standing next to the core hardware  of the computer – taller and wider than himself – was one of the most widely circulated technology images of 2019.  Google’s claim was quickly challenged by IBM who said the problem chosen to test Google’s quantum computer had been cherry picked—and that in general a problem of that complexity could be tackled by supercomputers in less than 3 days.
Claim and counter claims notwithstanding, there was no gainsaying the fact that the Age of Quantum Computing had arrived. Many large corporations pumped in millions of dollars to harness quantum computing for internal use – or to offer it as a cloud-based service-on-demand: Few  individual entities, especially academic  or  research institutions,  could afford to   buy, let alone build and run a computer of this class. The quantum computer derived its huge power from replacing conventional computing’s binary states of either one or zero bits with quantum bits or qubits which could be either one or zero, a property called superposition, allowing the computer to explore multiple possible solutions to a problem at the same time.
Indian efforts in exploiting quantum computing
Then, little happened:   Hundreds of institutions worldwide -- including many in India, including the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru, IIT Madras, IIT Jodhpur,  The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai,  the Quantum Information and Computing Lab at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru,  the Indian Army’s Quantum Computing Laboratory and  dozens of start-ups --   began work to  harness quantum computing for  applications in  logistics,  weather prediction, cybersecurity, defence and finance to just name  few.
A National Mission on Quantum Technologies was allocated Rs 8000 crores in India’s 2021 Union Budget to kickstart indigenous applications. But one major challenge remained: Quantum computers were so thin on the ground that  buying computation time was very costly and often  meant sending work outside national boundaries – a dicey  option  at any time.
More seriously, educational institutions in India which wanted to include Quantum computing in the curriculum, had no platform to convert theory into practice. This was akin to  teaching programming without a computer to test the programmes written by students. At best, some institutions ran simulation programmes, mimicking quantum performance on conventional machines…  not a very good solution. Till now.
Dramatic lurch, akin to first PC
Suddenly this month, a dramatic lurch towards affordable quantum computing platforms has occurred. It is a development that technology watchers  compare to the  pathbreaking desktop personal computer or PC that  appeared   forty years ago – from IBM and Apple --  exploding its reach   far beyond  the costly corporate mainframe computer of the time.
A Chinese company based in Shenzhen –SpinQ Technology --  and a partner agency in Japan  – Switch Science --  have put up for sale online three  quantum computing platforms that are portable and  smaller than many desktop PCs. 
The cheapest   and latest of these, called Gemini Mini, seems to be targeted as a portable educational platform.  It is rated as a 2 qubits quantum computer and the price in Japanese Yen when converted works out to around US$ 8000 (Rs 6.5 lakhs).  It is the only model that comes with an integrated display touch screen, which makes it easy  to use  the 18 inbuilt algorithms to set up a problem. It  weighs 14 kg and requires just 60 watts of power to run. SpinQ’s vision is to have a quantum computer in front of every student in a smart class, just where laptops are at present.
The next in size is the Gemini, shaped like a tower PC, only much heavier at 44 kg. While more advanced,  it is  still  a 2 qubits machine which the manufacturer suggests can be used to do simple scientific research.. Each qubit is capable of performing some 200 operations compared to around 30 in the Mini. It  is priced at the equivalent of US$ 41,000 ( around Rs 33 lakhs)
The costliest   is  the Triangulum,  a 40 kg   desktop model that  has a more advanced 3 qubits processor that will set you back the equivalent of US$ 58,000 ( Rs 46 lakhs).  It needs 330 watts of power and offers double the coherence time of the two Gemini models – over 40 milliseconds. Coherence time is an important parameter in quantum computing and defines how long a qubit will retain its information. This model seems capable of  some serious  albeit scaled down, applications
Working at room temperature!
All three machines   work on the theory of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). This takes a molecule and uses the nuclear spin of its atoms as the computing mechanism to read or change the qubit state. 
Incredibly these machines do this at normal room temperature unlike the gargantuan quantum computers like the one Google unveiled in 2019, which needs an operating environment close to absolute zero or -273 degree Celsius.|
At two and three qubits capacity , these are still baby machines compared to the industrial grade quantum computers which are typically able to process around 50 qubits.  But  the asking price of these desktop machines, while not cheap, is very far from  the typical cost of an industrial quantum computer, which can cost in excess of  US$ 10  million.
An OS for quantum computing?
In a parallel development that dovetails nicely with these hardware advances, a consortium led by Cambridge University in the UK has developed a standard software or operating system – Deltaflow.OS --   to run quantum computers, which they have put on a microchip. This will allow users of platforms from the smallest Gemini Mini to the largest room-sized quantum computer to run  standard software… a key prerequisite if quantum computing is to become as ubiquitous as today’s digital supercomputing. The OS is being  offered by Cambridge-based startup Riverlane.
The manufacturer, SpinQ  Technology,  was invited by the European Union’s quantum  educational programme QTEdu,  to join the development efforts with their desktop machines – and the company has seen interest from many western countries to harness these entry level machines as educational  aids  and    tools  for research startups. The company claims that its development team includes experts on quantum computing from respected US-based institutions like Harvard and MIT.
By this simple fact of availability, Quantum Computing has been transformed from a costly experiment affordable only to MNCs to a tool of tomorrow that  start-ups,  educational and research institutions worldwide can  access today, to build  the most meaningful applications that their national priorities demand.
For images of the three Quantum Computers from SpinQ and links for information and buying, please see Image of the Day.
This article first appeared in SwarajyaMag