Volkswagen, Google pair to tackle tough problems with quantum computers

As powerful and omnipresent as computers are today, they have their limits. Despite the pace of innovation, scientists have started bumping against the outer boundaries of modern computing, finding that even the most powerful machines can’t solve some of our most pressing challenges.

That’s where Volkswagen Group and Google have an idea. The two companies announced last week that they would team to explore the potential of quantum computers – a revolutionary new technology that, if its promise holds true, could crack some puzzles in seconds that would take today’s strongest supercomputers years.

Specialists from the Volkswagen Information Technology Centers in San Francisco and Munich will develop the first automotive software simulations and algorithms on Google’s experimental universal quantum computer, working alongside Google’s own experts.

The goal? Unlocking the theoretical power of quantum computing for real-world issues.

“Volkswagen’s collaboration with Google marks the beginning of quantum computing in the automotive industry,” said Abdallah Shanti, Executive Vice President and Group Chief Information & Digital Officer for Region Americas, Volkswagen of America, Inc. “It’s a paramount step to addressing modern mobility challenges unlikely to be solved with binary digital electronic computers.”

Google’s quantum computer. Photos copyright Google, Eric Lukero

The quantum ghost in the machine

To understand what makes quantum computers such a breakthrough, you have to dig into the basic structure of all computers. Computing is, after all, just working with numbers, and all modern computers do so by using transistors. A transistor, or “bit,” is a tiny switch; generally, when it’s on, it represents the number 1; when it’s off, it stands for a zero. After several decades of ever-smaller designs, today’s phones and laptops pack billions of transistors handling trillions of digits to stream TV shows and find the nearest four-star sushi place – all of it through shuffling ones and zeros.

Quantum computers don’t use transistors. Instead, they rely on quantum bits, which can be individual atoms or subatomic particles. Qubits also have an on or off state, but  – and here’s where things take a turn into the cosmic weirdness of quantum physics – they can also be both at the same time. That means one qubit can represent two numbers, and that a quantum computer’s capacity for numbers doubles with every additional qubit. With just 50 qubits, a quantum computer could handle as much data as a supercomputer – while using a tiny fraction of the time and energy.

“The difference in speed is incredible,” says Martin Hofmann, Chief Information Officer of the Volkswagen Group. “A quantum computer can complete calculating tasks in just a few seconds that would take the world’s fastest conventional supercomputer more than a year to perform.

“This does not mean that quantum computers are superior per se to conventional computers,” he adds. “But they can perform many highly complicated tasks much faster than conventional supercomputers, or make it possible to perform such jobs in the first place.”

From theory to practice

Quantum computing has only been a theory until recent breakthroughs, and the entire field remains highly experimental, with many technical hurdles to prove the concept’s potential.

Volkswagen was the first automaker in the world to explore with the power of a quantum computer, building a successful simulation of how to move 10,000 taxis around Beijing. Hofmann says VW’s programmers will build on that work with fresh challenges.

“One such challenge…would be integrating urban traffic management systems, public transportation or weather conditions into route planning,” he says. “Cities could manage traffic associated with major events or construction sites more efficiently and prevent congestion. In another project, we will simulate material structures, especially for high-performance e-vehicle batteries.”

The group will also explore how quantum computers could bolster machine learning or artificial intelligence. Beyond that lies the potential for a second computing revolution.

“We plan to seize this opportunity and be one of the first companies to use quantum computers for practical business activities,” Hofmann said. “Together with Google, we are moving application-oriented research forward.”