Huge hope rests in the world of the very smallest: one day, quantum computers will push the boundaries of what is meaningfully calculable themselves, based on theories that are difficult to access for common sense.
If that succeeds, complex calculations that take years today or are not possible at all could take hours in the future.
At a time when the amount of data and computing power available already often separate success from failure, it is perfectly clear what threatens those who cannot keep up.
This is, so to speak, the technological panorama in front of which the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the computer group IBM officially put their freely accessible quantum computer into operation this Tuesday in Ehningen near Stuttgart. The "IBM Q System One" is the first of its kind that the manufacturer has set up outside of America. The importance that German politics attaches to the project is not only shown by who, from the Federal Research Minister to the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg to the Chancellor, announced that they would be inaugurated - Angela Merkel was also personally involved in talks with the then IBM- CEO Ginni Rometty to bring the computer to Germany.
In fact, the technical and contractual arrangement sounds promising: Not only researchers can now try out a functioning quantum computer there under German law and test their own ideas on it, but also companies from medium-sized to large corporations.
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The underlying technology can theoretically be interesting for a wide variety of purposes: to simulate climate change, to discover new materials, to develop drugs, to better assess insurance risks, to control traffic flows, to encrypt or decrypt communication, to make artificial intelligence smarter or more specifically for example, to synthesize ammonia for fertilizers more efficiently.
The new computer in Ehningen, on the other hand, symbolizes the challenge Germany is facing in several ways. Unfortunately, German companies have not yet been able to build anything comparable. Once again, American IT companies (alongside IBM, primarily Google) and China are setting standards in a field that could help shape this century. On the other hand, and this is the chance, this competition is really just beginning. There is as yet no known quantum computer that actually delivers on the promises made by this technology. Fraunhofer President Reimund Neugebauer aptly describes the device near Stuttgart as a “high-tech driving school”.
And more is happening in Germany for a long time. Ten corporations, including Bosch, Merck, SAP and Volkswagen, have just founded a consortium called Qutac to jointly develop applications. In Bavaria, the “Munich Quantum Valley” initiative around the universities of LMU and TUM, the companies based there, and the Max Planck and Fraunhofer societies set out to build high-performance quantum computers “made in Germany”. Meanwhile, a proprietary quantum computer of the European “Open Super Q” project is due to be completed at Forschungszentrum Jülich this year. Fortunately, the German government now has a more trained eye for the strategic and power-political aspects of information technology progress, which for a long time tended to be better understood in Washington, Beijing, Paris and London.
Computer science has taken a groundbreaking development from the foundations that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz laid centuries ago, to the first electronic universal computers, to the smartphones and classic supercomputers of the present day. This was made possible again and again by the parallel progress in mathematics and other natural sciences. In fact, quantum physical principles are already in well-established inventions such as lasers, light emitting diodes or transistors.
In quantum computers, the aim is to make use of special phenomena that are behind technical terms such as “entanglement”, the effect that particles that are apart from one another act on each other at faster than light speeds and really change properties at the same time. This once seemed so puzzling to Albert Einstein that he called it "spooky action at a distance". Today billions in funds are being mobilized so that we don't get scared afterwards.