Exascale computers: The future of quantum computing

Hyderabad Aug 17, 2020

For the decade, the world’s major powers’ have been locked in a supercomputing arms race, one-upping one another with biggest and faster achievements. According to a new announcement, the world’s fastest supercomputer is coming to the United States in 2021 and will be the first to break the so-called "exascale" barrier.

Supercomputers measure their performance in flops, or calculations per second. A computer that has ten flops can make ten calculations in a second, which is abysmal for a modern computer. Your laptop or desktop is likely capable of several teraflops, or trillions of calculations per second.

The top-performing supercomputer in the world right now is the Fugaku super-computer reaches up to 415 petaflops, far outclassing its predecessors and has several thousand times as much processing power as a typical laptop.  But the big target in supercomputer construction right now is building the first exascale computer, capable of a quintillion calculations per second. Such a computer would be a million times faster than a typical desktop and could dramatically advance scientific and artificial intelligence research.

How much is a quintillion? To put things into perspective: that’s 1 followed by 18 zeroes.  It’s the speed at which the first of these exascale supercomputers will process information, and the ones that come after will be exponentially better. The Department of Energy (DOE (USA)) is preparing for the first exascale computer: Aurora, to be deployed in 2021. Two sister supercomputers will join it soon after. But here’s where things get even crazier: Quantum computers may be able to complete more complex calculations even faster than these up-and-coming exascale computers. This will not render these computers useless however, as they complement each other in the way they work, rather than compete.

It’s going to be a while before quantum computers are ready to tackle relevant  scientific research questions. While quantum researchers and scientists in various fields are collaborating to design quantum computers to be as effective as possible once they’re ready, the world is still a long way off. Scientists are figuring out how to build Qubits for quantum computers, which is the quantum version of the classic binary bit. They’re establishing the most fundamental quantum algorithms that they need to do the simplest of calculations. The hardware and algorithms first need to be developed enough for coders to develop operating systems and software to do scientific research. Currently, we’re at the same point in quantum computing that scientists in the 1950s were, with computers that ran on vacuum tubes. Most of us regularly carry computers in our pockets now, but it took decades to get to this level of accessibility.

Right from their deployment, they’ll be able to tackle major challenges in modelling Earth systems, analysing genes, tracking barriers to fusion, and more. These powerful machines will allow scientists to include more variables in their equations and improve models’ accuracy. As long as we can find new ways to improve conventional computers, you can bet we’ll do it.

Even once quantum computers achieve the level of sophistication that we need them to, we’ll always have a place for conventional computers. They simply have different needs from different people.

For example, DOE is designing its exascale computers to be exceptionally good at running scientific simulations as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence programs. These will help humanity break the threshold we have found ourselves at for quite some time. At our user facilities, which are producing increasingly large amounts of data, these computers will be able to analyse that data in real time.

Quantum computers, on the other hand, will be perfect for modelling and mapping out the interactions of electrons and nuclei that are the constituents of atoms. As these interactions are the foundation for chemistry and materials science, these computers could be incredibly useful. Applications include modelling fundamental chemical reactions, understanding superconductivity, and designing materials from the atom level up. Quantum computers could potentially reduce the time it takes to run these simulations from billions of years to a few minutes. Another intriguing possibility is connecting quantum computers with a quantum internet network. This quantum internet, coupled with the classical internet, could have a profound impact on science, national security, and industry.

Check out this graphic to get a better understanding.

Author : Aditya Udupa

Disclaimer : The pictures in the article are for illustration purposes only. Neither the author nor IEEE Student Branch , BITS Hyderabad has any claim over them.

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