These Canadian startups are taking quantum computing mainstream

It’s not what you’d expect to find on the 29th floor of a Toronto office building. Instead of cubicles, a complex arrangement of lasers, mirrors and optical fibers run from floor to ceiling, making up the quantum computer called Borealis.

And Borealis recently hit a milestone by solving a colossal math problem.

“If we ran [the problem] on the most powerful supercomputer out there, it would take 9,000 years. For Borealis, it takes less than a second, which is quite incredible,” says Christian Weedbrook, CEO of Xanadu, the company that built Borealis.

Weedbrook said it’s just the third time a quantum computer has tackled something out of reach for an ordinary computer, a scenario called quantum advantage. The first time was by Google in 2019, the second by a team of Chinese researchers in 2020. Xanadu’s achievement was published earlier this summer in the magazine Nature.

Christian Weedbrook is CEO of Canadian quantum computing startup, Xanadu. (CBC News)

For years, quantum computers have mostly been the focus of academics and government. Now, experts say we could be near a turning point where the technology is closer to commercialization.

“It’s a really nice step showing that the technology is mature … and could be a candidate for more wide-scale adoption of quantum computers,” said Anne Broadbent, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa where she researches quantum computing.

Weedbrook said the potential for quantum computers is almost limitless, opening the door to “solving important business problems in industries from finance to drug discovery and material design.”

Exponential possibilities

The concepts used in quantum computing may seem mind-bending, and they’re very powerful. Ordinary computers encode information using zeros and ones, called binary digits — or bits for short. Using quantum physics, these supercomputers can use zeros, ones, or any value in between, in something known as quantum digits — or qubits. This allows them to perform calculations much faster on problems that are more complex.

But the big difference between the two types of computers is how they actually approach a problem. If a regular computer were to try to get through a maze, it would consider each possible route one at a time. A quantum computer would consider all the routes at once.

“Just adding one [qubit] doubles the computational capacity of your system,” says Stephanie Simmons, an associate professor of physics at Simon Fraser University and a founder of Vancouver-based quantum startup Photonic. “It’s exponential … so the scale is off the charts and that’s the kind of power that we’re hoping to leverage.”

Stephanie Simmons is an associate professor of physics and founder of Photonics. She sees commercialization as the next step for quantum computers. (CBC News)

In July, Simmons and her team also had an innovation published in Nature: a silicon chip that holds 150,000 qubits. Since silicon is already so widely used in technology, Simmons says it will be easier to produce these beefier chips on a larger scale.

“What we see next is the commercialization of quantum, and so we’ll start to see little glimmers and then all of a sudden it’s going to change everything we do.”

The global picture

The race is on to build a universal quantum computer that can solve a wide array of problems. Startups in the sector are booming, with 23 quantum businesses based in Canada, according to McKinsey & Co., a global management consultant. The US is the only country further ahead, sitting at 59 quantum-related startups.

Weedbrook said the growth in this field offers an opportunity to attract scientific talent to the country.

“Xanadu is kind of doing … a brain gain of sorts,” he said. “We have over half the people that started it are actually from overseas.”

WATCH | Commercialization the next step for quantum computers:

What the future holds for quantum computing

Canadians at the forefront of the quantum computing industry describe what the future holds.

American corporate heavyweights like IBM, Google and Microsoft are making a big commercial push, as are Amazon and Honeywell. And governments are increasing quantum computing a priority. The US just signed the CHIPS and Science Act, which provides about $280 billion US for quantum, computing and artificial intelligence research and development. Meanwhile, China and the EU are also investing heavily in this technology.

“We’re looking at a scenario where there’s international competition that is very strong,” said Broadbent, the Ottawa professor. “Canada has been traditionally ahead in many areas … we want to keep that effort going.”

Canada committed $360 million in the 2021 federal budget towards building a national quantum strategy. Simmons said she hopes that with continued investment “we could really make a big difference in terms of keeping the jobs here, keeping the talent here and actually benefiting from this economic windfall.”

Getting practical

While quantum computers are still in their nascent stage, experts already point to them as having the potential to solve complex problems like climate change and cybersecurity. The technology is beginning to creep into business plans too, with Goldman Sachs using quantum computers to improve calculations in options financing and Volkswagen looking to use them to optimize its manufacturing.

Prof. Daniel Gottesman, a theoretical computer scientist at the University of Maryland, acknowledges there is still plenty of hype in the industry.

“There’s a lot of reason to hope for the future of quantum computing, but there’s also uncertainty as well … progress could slow down,” he said.

A Vancouver team led by Simmons created a quantum chip using silicon that can hold 150,000 qubits. (CBC News)

Still he predicts quantum computers will live up to expectations; it’s just a matter of when. “It will be some time before we get ones that are big enough to do things that are useful for anything — and even longer before we get ones that are useful for lots of things.”

The technology does face hurdles, including cost and the scale of production, but Simmons expects quantum computing to make a big difference.

“Even if you don’t use quantum computers at your desk, you’re still going to live the effects. Because lots of firms are going to be able to use this exponential boost in computing power to change what they can deliver to us as consumers.”