In a gray industrial building in Dorval, a suburb on the island of Montreal, sitting among a sea of other gray 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 within a suspended metal frame surrounded by pipes and the rhythmic whine of a cooling system, fills almost an entire room. Inside the drum, chemically frozen at 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 only one a handful operating worldwide, and one of two in Canada. In Bromont, a ski town less than 100 kilometers east of Montreal, another quantum computer, this one built by IBM, is being assembled.
The two computers represent a breakthrough in the field of computing. They take advantage of the properties of small particles, which can exist in several places at once, to one day, when the technology is more refined, process information much faster than even the most powerful 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 big step forward for Quebec to have a quantum computer,” said Alexis Goulisty, chief technology officer for PINQ2, a Sherbrooke, Que.-based nonprofit that will manage the IBM computer when it is later operational. this year.
“These are very rare machines.”
Quantum computing is a budding research area 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 almost $140 billion in Canada.
But as the field flourishes, there are some concerns about how this technology will eventually be used.
People working in the field in Quebec told the CBC that talks are underway about how these computers can be used “forever,” and Goulisty said that PINQ2 has some kind of oversight board to ensure that the IBM computer doesn’t used to crack government access codes or hack into the financial system, for example.
However, it is still early days and the computers are not there yet. There are few people who understand quantum computers well enough to use them, let alone build them, according to Alireza Najafi-Yazdi, CEO of Anyon Systems, the Montreal-based company that designed and built MonarQ.
Najafi-Yazdi is proud to promote MonarQ as not only Canada’s first universal quantum computer, but also one that was built entirely in Canada.
Before IBM Quantum One and MonarQ, which are set to go live 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. in other parts of the country as well.
However, MonarQ and IBM Quantum ONE are “universal” quantum computers, meaning they can be programmed to solve a variety of problems unlike earlier versions, which were much more limited.
The private sector is also interested. 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 getting real,” Najafi-Yazdi said. “They have to prepare…because it will alter the nature of their business and it will take years to train their workforce to take advantage of this technology.”
Anyon Systems is competing with IBM in the quantum computing space, but Najafi Yazdi said that at this early stage of the technology, competition will 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 use it for interesting research, that’s exciting for us.”
Computers will also be used for slightly different purposes. MonarQ, the Anyon machine, is being delivered to Calcul Quebec, a non-profit organization whose goal is to provide researchers with state-of-the-art computers. IBM Quantum One is being operated by PINQ2, a Quebec government-funded non-profit organization that is helping companies, or anyone interested in technology, immerse themselves in it.
A new way of calculating
Quantum computers are special and innovative because they work in fundamentally different ways than traditional computers.
A traditional, or classical, computer is basically a network of small switches, called transistors, that provide information to the computer in the form of ones and zeros, called bits.
Quantum computers use tiny particles, called qubits, as switches inside the computer.
Those particles, just like normal bits, can be either a one or a zero. But they can also be in both states at once, thanks to the logical bending properties of how 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 have not yet reached the point where they can perform the same operations as normal computers. “Don’t try to watch Netflix on it,” Najafi-Yazdi quipped.
They are also extremely brittle and make mistakes.
Computers must be kept cool, close to absolute zero, -273.15C, the coldest temperature physically possible in which matter remains absolutely motionless and isolated from the outside world to prevent any wandering motion 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 hope quantum computers will solve in seconds problems that currently take supercomputers years or even decades to compute at their fastest speeds.
That reality is not here yet, Suzanne Talon, executive director of Calcul Quebec, said in an interview. However, it is coming and Quebec is emerging as a destination to lay the foundations of the field.
Quebec has a history of investing in “out-of-the-box” innovation, Talon said. Montreal is seen as a hub for artificial intelligence thanks to investments that began years before AI was mainstream.
The same is happening with quantum computing. Sherbrooke is home to a number of quantum computing startups, and Montreal boasts some of the brightest minds in computer science, including pioneers in the worlds of quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
With new computers under construction, Goulisty hopes that Canadian innovators will be at the forefront.
“This machine [IBM Quantum One] It allows Quebec engineering companies to have access to a very rare machine,” he said, “and with access comes competition and with competition obviously comes innovation.”
Scientists involved with the IBM Quantum One system at Bromont hope to harness the power of the computer to solve problems related to sustainability and climate change.
Goulisty said IBM’s quantum computer can help model new kinds of molecules to develop more sustainable materials or optimize an electrical grid to save energy, problems that 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.
Until recently, for many, working on them was only a theoretical possibility.
But now, for Alireza Najafi-Yazdi, it’s getting real.
MonarQ will soon leave Anyon, going 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 the researchers will finally start running algorithms on the machine and see what it’s capable of.
The exciting part of that process, Talon said, is that they’re not entirely sure what they’re going to find. “We know he’s going to be good at something, but we haven’t mastered it yet,” Talon said. “We know it’s going to change the way we do computing.”