• Jacob Bourne

Documentary Frames Climate Change as a Quantum Computing Challenge

A new documentary, Our Sustainable Future, from The Quantum Daily premiered on July 29, exploring how leading tech experts are hoping to leverage quantum computing to address the urgent problem of climate change.

It’s becoming more difficult to sustain a high quality of life on Earth, and climate change is a primary driver of this alarming trend. The excess amount of carbon in the atmosphere wreaking havoc on the biosphere will remain there for centuries without human intervention. The problem is that removing the carbon or cooling the rising global average temperature by some other means are not simple tasks.

“Were essentially flailing around in the dark with a huge amount of trial and error,” said ORCA Computing CEO Richard Murray in the documentary. “That's a pretty sad situation, especially given the scope of the magnitude of the challenge that we face. We are almost out of time to address climate change.”

Leading experts from tech giants Google, IBM and Intel, and startups like SeeQC and PsiQuantum view the issue as an engineering problem that’s a job for quantum computers.

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One problem with applying present technologies like supercomputers, big data and artificial intelligence to climate change is that the digital world relies on data centers, which consume enormous amounts of energy. Not all of it comes from renewable sources. As the world's energy sector primarily drives climate change, any sound solution shouldn’t be an energy-intensive one.

Another limitation of current technologies is that they rely on standard binary digital operations that have been around for many decades. However, as data sets get increasingly larger and machine learning becomes more complex, classical computers have difficulty keeping up. Conversely, instead of dealing with zeros and ones, quantum computers use qubits, which can be in a state of superimposition, allowing a qubit to perform two calculations at once. If two qubits are entangled, they can perform four calculations at once, a phenomenon that makes quantum computers vastly more powerful than the most powerful supercomputers.

This power could enable quantum computers to accelerate the development of things like carbon capture and battery technologies to help fight climate change while using far less energy than classical computers.

"We recognize the centrality of sustainability in the development of quantum systems, both from an energy efficiency perspective as well as with the applications that quantum computers will address in areas such as climate modeling, material science and energy," said John Levy, CEO of SeeQC.

Another reason quantum computing may hold promise for solving complex planetary problems is that subatomic particles, which operate on the laws of quantum mechanics, make up the natural world, whereas classical computers follow classical mechanical models. For this reason, it’s thought that quantum mechanics will allow for faster and more complex problem solving that’s a better match for complicated natural systems. For example, in terms of climate change, the excess carbon in the atmosphere has led to cascading effects within the planet’s systems, which involve innumerable factors that researchers shouldn't examine in isolation. Yet, quantum computing allows for multiple variables to be viewed in parallel, which could be a game changer for climate modeling.

While this may seem promising, the field of quantum computing itself has experienced immense challenges in advancing the technology. One of the most significant limiting factors of scaling up quantum computing is that the qubits have to be kept near absolute zero in temperature to remain in a state of coherence, thus producing quality calculations with low error rates. Ensuring the qubits remain so chilled requires elaborate cooling systems. However, recent advancements for simpler systems have led to the expectation that quantum computers could be available as compact mass-market devices to effectively tackle complex problems like climate change within 15 to 20 years.

PsiQuantum recently raised $450 million in Series D funding to build a commercially viable quantum computer. In May 2020, the company began manufacturing silicon photonic and electronic chips, viewed as a milestone in developing a fault-tolerant quantum computer. PsiQuantum manufactures quantum photonics chips and cryogenic electronic chips to control qubits using advanced semiconductor tools manufactured by partner GlobalFoundries.

“Quantum computing is the most profoundly world-changing technology uncovered to date,” said Jeremy O'Brien, CEO and co-founder of PsiQuantum. “It is my conviction that the way to bring this technology into reality is by using photonics. Our company was founded on the understanding that leveraging semiconductor manufacturing is the only way to deliver the million qubits that are known to be required for error correction, a prerequisite for commercially valuable quantum computing applications. This funding round is a major vote of confidence for that approach.”


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