Setting standards for the future of quantum computers

Quantum computing is a relatively young technology that promises to spearhead a wave of disruption that will transform the way we we live and work. Governments, universities and corporations are investing billions into developing the technology. International standards can underpin their work. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The IEC and ISO have set up a working group (WG 14) in their joint technical committee (JTC1) to identify the standardization needs of quantum computing. It is hoped that their work can support the evolution of quantum computing by providing a foundation of already defined systems and processes. Such a foundation would enable developers to focus their attention on higher-level challenges, rather than starting their projects from scratch.

“From my personal perspective, I believe this is in accordance with the IEC Masterplan, which states that ‘The IEC will strengthen its capacity to identify and respond to emerging (and potentially disruptive) technology developments, as well as to market and social trends’”, explains the WG 14 Chair, Hong Yang, who is also the director of the Network Technology Research Department of the China Electronics and Standardization Institute (CESI).

Yang says that WG 14 is keen to provide a worldwide collaboration platform for the quantum computing industry, including academic organizations and high-tech institutes, as well as companies. The group will function as a systems integration entity inside JTC 1, maintaining relations with other groups and committees, as well as external organizations, with the aim of identifying gaps and opportunities in the field of quantum computing standardization.

“We hope to push the growing consensus of opinion on quantum computing from all over the world. Essentially, in WG 14 we are trying to promote the development of industrialization”, says Yang.

Quantum computing is widely expected to become a game changer, capable of solving problems that would take even the fastest supercomputers millions of years. Even though the technology is still in its infancy, it is already being used to design optimized solutions in sectors such as aerospace and finance, for example. In future, it could accelerate medical research, achieve significant advances in artificial intelligence and perhaps even help us to find ways to tackle the climate change emergency.

“The quantum computing industry is truly in its early stage”, says Yang. “Companies are working on the exploratory stage of quantum computers. Quantum bits, also known as qubits, are still difficult to control and keep stable. In terms of software or algorithms, both universities and academic organizations have been working on this for many years.”

Today, there are two kinds of quantum computer. Gate-based quantum computing works in much the same way as traditional computing. A transistor receives two incoming signals and depending on what it encounters, sends out a new electric signal. In the quantum model, qubits replace the transistors. Unfortunately, qubits only function “coherently” when they are cooled down to mere thousandths of a degree above absolute zero, which protects them from the destabilizing effects of radiation, light, sound, vibrations and magnetic fields. The susceptibility of qubits to perturbations makes it harder to eliminate errors.

Computers based on quantum annealing take a radically different approach. Instead of allowing the entanglement of all qubits, they create an environment where only restricted, local connections are possible. The catch is that they can only perform a much narrower range of tasks, mainly related to solving optimization problems — i.e. choosing the best solution from all feasible solutions. The limited number of tasks that quantum annealers can perform means, for example, that they are unable to run Shor’s “decryption” algorithm.  Despite the limitations, some of the world’s best-known organizations have already purchased their own quantum annealers for around 15 million USD a piece. Other companies are benefitting from the more affordable alternative of cloud-based services, which typically charge by the minute.

Eventually, gate-based quantum computers are expected to have a far more disruptive and transformative effect, especially when combined with technologies like artificial intelligence. Yang believes that IEC and ISO are right to start preparing now in order to address fully the needs of industry and society, as well as to share best practices more efficiently. The first step, as always in the standardization process, is making sure that everyone is using the same language. This makes exchanging data easier and more efficient.

Regarding standardization, after a period of research inside ISO/IEC JTC 1, experts believe that it is necessary and possible to have a unified understanding of the terminology and vocabulary for the future of this emerging technology”, says Yang.

The new work item proposal, named ‘Information technology-Quantum computing-terminology and vocabulary’, is registered for 24 months, so probably two years later, in 2022, the international standard will be published. We are looking forward to seeing that.”