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Already a leader in AI, Quebec sets its sights on quantum computing

Two quantum computers being built in Quebec represent a breakthrough in the field of computing. They leverage the properties of small particles to, theoretically, process information far faster than even the strongest supercomputers.

Quebec has invested nearly $200M in quantum computing over 7 years

A white cylinder hanging from a metal frame.

In a grey industrial building in Dorval, a suburb on the island of Montreal, sitting among a sea of other grey industrial buildings, a team of physicists and engineers is tinkering with a machine that is expected to change the field of computing.

The machine, a white cylinder hanging inside a suspended metal frame surrounded by piping and the rhythmic chirping of a cooling system, fills nearly an entire room. Inside the drum, chemically frozen to temperatures colder than the vacuum of space, hangs a chandelier-like structure of brass and gold wires.

This is MonarQ, a universal quantum computer, one of just ahandful operating across the globe, and one of two in Canada. In Bromont, a ski town less than 100 kilometres east of Montreal, another quantum computer is coming together, this one built by IBM.

The two computers represent a breakthrough in the field of computing. They leverage the properties of small particles, which can exist in multiple places at once, to, one day, when the technology is more refined, process information far faster than even the strongest supercomputers.

The Quebec government has invested nearly $200 million in this technology over a seven-year period in the hope that the province will become a global destination for quantum computing. The two new quantum computers, MonarQ and IBM Quantum One, represent some of the first steps in that direction.

"It's a major leap forward for Quebec to have a quantum computer," said Alexis Goulisty, the chief technology officer of PINQ2, a non-profit organization based in Sherbrooke, Que., that will manage the IBM computer when it becomes operational sometime later this year.

"These are very rare machines."

Quantum computing is a budding area of research that experts predict will one day change the way humans solve problems and use computers. Globally, tech giants like Google and IBM, along with some countries like China, are racing to develop quantum computers and train people to use them.

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) predicts that in a few decades the sector will be worth nearly $140 billion in Canada.

But as the field blossoms, there are some concerns about how this technology will, eventually, be used.

People who work in the field in Quebec told CBC that conversations are taking place around how these computers can be used "for good," and Goulisty said PINQ2 has an oversight board, of sorts, to ensure the IBM computer isn't being used to decrypt government access codes or hack the financial system, for example.

It is, however, still early days and the computers aren't there yet. There are few people who understand quantum computers well enough to use them — let alone build them, according to Alireza Najafi-Yazdi, the CEO of Anyon Systems, the Montreal-based company that designed and built MonarQ.

A gold box and a computer chip.

Najafi-Yazdi proudly touts MonarQ as not just the first universal quantum computer in Canada but one that was built entirely in Canada as well.

Before IBM Quantum One and MonarQ, both of which are set to begin operating in the coming months, there was only one quantum computer in Quebec, a machine used by researchers at the Valcartier military base, and only a few other early-stage quantum computers elsewhere in the country, too.

MonarQ and IBM Quantum ONE, however, are "universal" quantum computers, meaning they can be programmed to solve a variety of problems as opposed to previous versions which were much more limited.

The private sector is interested too. Banks and pharmaceutical companies, among others, are interested in quantum computing because it is likely to dramatically change their fields in the coming years.

"It's becoming real," Najafi-Yazdi said. "They have to get ready …because it will disrupt the nature of their business and will take years to get their workforce trained to leverage this technology."

Anyon Systems is competing with IBM in the quantum computing space, but Najafi Yazdi said that in this early stage of the technology, competition will just lead to more innovation.

"The more the merrier," he said.

"The fact that we can make something that will go into the hands of researchers here in Canada and Quebec and they're going to use it for some interesting research, that's exciting for us."

The computers will also be used for slightly different purposes. MonarQ, the Anyon machine, is being delivered to Calcul Quebec, a non-profit whose goal is to provide researchers with cutting-edge computers. IBM Quantum One is being operated by PINQ2, a non-profit funded by the Quebec government that is helping companies — or anyone interested in the technology — dip their toe in it.

Man smiling in front of quantum computer.

A new way to compute

Quantum computers are special, and groundbreaking, because they function in fundamentally different ways from traditional computers.

A traditional — or classical — computer is basically a network of tiny switches, called transistors, that provide the computer information in the forms of ones and zeros, called bits.

Quantum computers use tiny particles, called qubits, as the switches inside the computer.

Those particles, just like regular bits, can be either a one or a zero. But they can also be in both states at once — thanks to the logic-bending properties of how the particles behave.

This gives the quantum computer the ability to process information exponentially faster and, essentially, explore multiple possible solutions to a problem at once, unlike a classical computer which would have to try one at a time.

But quantum computers haven't yet reached the point where they can do the same operations that regular computers can. "Don't try to watch Netflix on it," Najafi-Yazdi joked.

They're also extremely fragile and they make mistakes.

The computers must be kept cold — near absolute zero, –273.15C, the coldest temperature physically possible at which matter stays absolutely still, and isolated from the outside world to prevent any errant movement of the atomic particles that make up the computer. Any small movement can introduce an error.

But the technology is such that, one day, researchers expect quantum computers will solve in seconds problems which currently take supercomputers years or even decades when calculating at their fastest speeds.

That reality isn't here yet, Suzanne Talon, the CEO of Calcul Quebec, said in an interview. It is coming, however, and Quebec is setting itself up as a destination to lay out the foundation of the field.

Quantum computer

Quebec has a track record of investing in "out-of-the-box" innovation, Talon said. Montreal is seen as a hub for artificial intelligence thanks to investments which began years ago before AI was mainstream.

The same thing is happening for quantum computing. Sherbrooke is home to a number of quantum computing startups and Montreal claims some of the brightest minds in computer science, including pioneers in the quantum computing and artificial intelligence worlds.

With the new computers being built, Goulisty hopes Canadian innovators will be on the cutting edge.

"This machine [IBM Quantum One] allows Quebec engineering companies to have access to a very rare machine," he said, "and with access comes proficiency and with proficiency obviously comes innovation."

The scientists involved with the IBM Quantum One system in Bromont are hoping to leverage the computer's power to solve problems related to sustainability and climate change.

Goulisty said the IBM quantum computer may help model new kinds of molecules to develop more sustainable materials or optimize an electricity grid to save energy — problems traditional computing can't or isn't good at solving.

Quantum computers were developed to solve complex problems, but scientists are still trying to unlock their potential.

Up until recently, for many, working on them was just a theoretical possibility.

But now, for Alireza Najafi-Yazdi, it's becoming real.

MonarQ will soon leave Anyon, making its way from the Dorval industrial park to Calcul Quebec's headquarters at the Université de Montréal — a delicate operation considering the fragility and complexity of the computer.

Then, researchers will finally begin running algorithms on the machine and seeing what it's capable of.

The exciting part of that process, Talon said, is that they aren't entirely sure what they're going to find. "We know it's going to be good at something but we haven't quite mastered that yet," Talon said. "We know it's going to change the way we do computing."

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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