Russia's tiny quantum computer is (probably) nothing to worry about

16 qubit system capable of modeling simple molecules, Kremlin says

Scientists at Russia's International Center for Quantum Optics and Quantum Technologies recently presented a new quantum computer to the nation's President Vladimir Putin, proclaiming it to be the "most powerful in Russia today."

That might sound ominous, but it's anything but. Likely to the relief of the US and its allies, the Russians appear to be a long way away from breaking modern encryption – one of quantum computing's more terrifying conclusions, assuming it's even possible in the first place.

At 16 qubits, the quantum computer is absolutely tiny – at least compared to Western systems developed at IBM, Dwave, and others who have built quantum systems with hundreds of qubits.

According to a blog post published by the state-run atomic energy company, Rosatom, Russia's quantum system uses a trapped-ion design and has been under development since 2015.

As for what it's good for, a statement released by the Kremlin claims researchers have "launched an algorithm for calculating a simple molecule," and demonstrated it running in real time. That doesn't exactly sound like a grave threat to western security interests.

"Our quantum computer, which is important, is already doing useful things – ​modeling molecules, and not doing scientific abstraction," wrote Ilya Semerikov, in a blog post translated from Russian.

While quantum computing is still very much in its infancy, it's hoped that eventually the technology will accelerate many computationally demanding workloads – including drug discovery, material sciences, traffic congestion, supply chain, weather forecasting, and yes, cryptography.

That said, researchers at Fujitsu recently estimated you're going to need a fault-tolerant quantum computer with at least 10,000 qubits and 2.23 trillion quantum gates to crack RSA. Even then, others argue that anyone who goes through that effort is going to have to sift through a mountain of junk to find a gem.

That hasn't stopped development of these technologies, and has attracted millions of dollars in public and private funding. Last year, we highlighted several reports out of China regarding quantum code breaking and investments in computer development.

While the legitimacy of those claims is up for debate, it doesn't appear that the US military is taking any chances. In February, the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) announced the Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing (US2QC) program – in collaboration with Microsoft, Atom, and PsiQuantum – to further the development of quantum system designs. Among the concerns highlighted by the agency was the potential for future quantum systems to unzip modern encryption.

In the private sector, IBM has committed $100 million to build a 100,000 qubit "quantum-centric supercomputer" within a decade, and tapped the Universities of Tokyo and Chicago for help.

However, as we've previously reported, not only are we going to need to build much bigger quantum systems, we also need to develop more efficient algorithms to take advantage of them if there's any hope of achieving quantum advantage.

Back in May, researchers working at Microsoft and the Scalable Parallel Computing Laboratory in Zurich penned a report showing that without more efficient algorithms, even a quantum system with 10,000 error-correcting qubits – or about a million physical qubits – would struggle to keep up with a single Nvidia A100 GPU in many workloads.

This itself has spurred research into quantum emulation – to provide developers a means to experiment with quantum algorithms using conventional hardware, while they wait for commercial systems to become widely available. ®

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