Most people think that a quantum computer is either a plot device in a science fiction plot, or, at the very least, a relic of mankind's 100-year fascination with adding the adjective "quantum" to nouns to make things appear mysterious or powerful.
Most also think that quantum computers, if they are a thing at all, are centuries away from development.
But, even as you read this, researchers are working to develop computers with a fitting quantum adjective. In addition to relying on quantum information processes, these machines will be more powerful -- in certain domains -- and definitely more mysterious than classical computers.
What's a Quantum Computer?
The computer that you're reading this on uses classic bits. To perform logic operations, a bit is either on or off. On the other hand -- or hands -- a quantum computer bit -- qubit -- can be on, off, and somehow in a perplexing in-between state, called a superposition.
That superposition gives a quantum computer exponential computing power. Hook three qubits through a process called entanglement, for example, and it would give you 2 to the power of N (or 3, in this case) so 2 x 2 x 2 = 8 bits. Four qubits? 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 16 bits. Then things get seriously perplexing.
Sounds great, but that little operation -- entanglement -- is sort of impossible to maintain. That state quickly falls apart, or decoheres, in our chaotic, noisy, guy-in-the-next-cubicle-won't-stop-coughing environment.
But never tell a scientist that something is sort of impossible. With each week and, often, every day, more research is making quantum computing realizable -- and perhaps even scalable and practical. In fact, a whole industry is being built around quantum computing. It's small right now -- tiny disclosure: there will be lots of size puns in this article -- but as venture capital and research funds flows in, a quantum computing industry could be the next big thing.
If you're interested in what the benefits -- and stakes -- of a quantum computer industry would be, think about quantum cryptography that could solve unbreakable codes, big data bioinformatics that could try millions of different drug combinations to find the perfect cure, artificial intelligence that would be superhuman... the list goes on and on.
Here are a few quantum computing companies that are part of this industry right now.
If there's a quantum giant, it's D-Wave Systems. Based in Canada, this company is a pioneer in quantum hardware design and arguably the first to develop a quantum computing chip using an approach called quantum annealing. There is some controversy on whether the D-Wave chip -- and the company claims its latest is a 1,000 qubit quantum computer -- uses quantum processing but the D-Wave team has also shown an incredible ability to answer critics and develop better and better (and more and more qubit-powered) computers.
Led by founder Chad Rigetti, this company has amassed a pool of some of the best talent in quantum computing. They also have said their teams have created quantum hardware that can better preserve those fragile quantum states and -- best of all -- is scalable.
Dedicated to solving "the world's most challenging computational problems," 1Qbit is a quantum computing software company. Just as Microsoft laid the foundation for the software industry in the conventional computing realm, 1Qbit is working to develop the foundations of a quantum computer software industry. Maybe it's a ReallyReallyReallyMicrosoft.
Based on patents from physicist Robert R. Tucci, Artiste is a startup quantum computer software company. The website features a few of the tools Tucci and his group has already developed -- and you can play around with some of them, too.
Cambridge Quantum Computing Ltd.
A computer needs an operating system. Cambridge Quantum Computing may be developing the first ever quantum computer OS -- called ti|ket>, among other tools and apps for QCs.
If you are looking to invest in quantum companies, you're not going to be able to invest in most of these pioneers, unless you're a venture capitalist, or an accredited investor, or somehow affiliated with the cash-infused Kardashian family.
However, there are a few ways around this by investing in some giant public companies that are betting on the quantum revolution. Here are some options:
(Disclosure: I have small positions in several of the following companies.)
Google (Alphabet Inc. Class A: GOOGL) collaborates with D-Wave and they're doing their own quantum computing investigations. The company's scientists are particularly interested in the mind-blowing partnership between quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI).
Good old Microsoft (MSFT) is making a big bet on quantum computing. Word among experts is that if their approach -- a topological system promoted by their project called Station Q -- is successful, it will dominate the industry. Hey. Just like old times.
Finally, Harris and Harris Group (TINY) is essentially a public venture capital company that is invested in quantum computing concerns, such as D-Wave.