Computing’s Super-Future

The European Commission has tasked itself with making Europe one of the leading locations for quantum computing. With its competitive research facilities and vast network of industrial partners, Germany is playing a key role in achieving that goal.

July 2019

At the renowned Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas at the beginning of 2019, IBM unveiled a groundbreaking innovation: a quantum computing system that wasn’t just for the scientific community but for commercial use too. The IBM Q System One applies the same approach to quantum computing that is used for regular computing systems and is comprised of a number of components that work together at a far greater speed. “A quantum is the smallest atom in existence,” explains physicist Tommaso Calarco, director at the Peter Grünberg Institute. “Regular computers use bits as the smallest possible unit of information. Whereas bits can only take the values 0 and 1, so-called quantum bits can be both at the same time. Qubits can therefore hold much more information.”

Quantum computers provide an answer to one of the main challenges in computing – the physical limits of regular computing power. For several years now, research facilities all over the world have been developing supercomputers that can operate at a far higher speed than regular systems. Quantum computing is ushering in the next generation of computing because the new systems are so much faster and have a greater computing power than even supercomputers.

»Europe has ­recognized its shortcomings and is now ­investing heavily in supercomputing.«

Dorian Krause

head of the High Performance Computing Systems divison at ­Forschungszentrum Jülich

Research facilities such as Forschungszentrum Jülich in North Rhine-Westphalia and Leibniz Supercomputing Center in Bavaria are driving developments in Germany. This not only strengthens the Federal Republic’s position as a technology hotspot; it also adds to its attractiveness as a business location for foreign companies and overseas investors.

To push the development process forward, the European Union (E.U.) will invest EUR 1 billion in quantum computer development over the next 10 years, and the German government will also contribute around EUR 650 million to the research and development of quantum technologies during this legislative period. At Forschungszentrum Jülich, scientists are currently working on a 100-qubit computer that is scheduled to go into operation at the end of 2021. It is part of the European Commission’s “Quantum Flagship” research initiative, which aims to take quantum technologies from the research lab into everyday applications.

This is what a supercomputer looks like: the SuperMUC-NG occupies a large space at the Garching center, Bavaria. Following a visit from the state premier, this highly complex system is now officially operational. © picture alliance/Lino Mirgeler/dpa

Supercomputer for hire

In September 2018 scientists at Forschungs­zentrum Jülich put the JUWELS into operation, at the time the fastest supercomputer in Germany (at peak performance its power is equivalent to 60,000 regular computers). JUWELS is the result of a Franco-German cooperation between researchers from Forschungszentrum Jülich, Munich-based software company ParTex and French IT specialist Atos. It is mainly used by scientists to analyze large data volumes, for example, in climate research and neuroscience. Nevertheless, companies (including foreign companies located in the E.U.) can apply to use the supercomputer as well. Bosch, Siemens and Zeiss, for instance, have already shown interest in using JUWELS for research.

All those who apply for computing time have to submit to a peer review process and explain what they want to research and why it can only be done with the help of a supercomputer. The scientific community decides who qualifies and allocates the computing time. Calarco suggests that companies should partner with a research facility in order to be approved for JUWELS: “We definitely try to make it possible, especially for SMEs, but most of the computing time has to go to research.”

In the meantime, scientists at the Leibniz Supercomputing Center (LRZ) in Munich have developed a supercomputer that is even faster than JUWELS. The so-called SuperMUC-NG, which will be operational in the spring, has a computing power of 26.9 petaflops (a unit of computing speed equivalent to a quadrillion floating point operations per second or “FLOPS”). That makes it the eighth fastest computer in the world. Like JUWELS, it is government-financed, and it has cost EUR 96 million to date. “The development of a highly complex system like SuperMUC-NG requires close cooperation between manufacturers and operators such as the LRZ,” says its director Professor ­Dieter Kranzl­müller. “The supercomputer can be used in all areas of science, as well as by companies, if done in the context of a scientific cooperation.” Kranzmüller and his team are currently looking into whether the LRZ is a suitable location for more in-depth quantum computing research. Meanwhile, the researchers at Forschungszentrum Jülich are working on ramping up JUWELS’s quantum system to create an even faster supercomputer that will raise the bar even higher.

9.2bn

The sum the European Commission plans to invest in the first ever Digital Europe program to fund supercomputers, artificial intelligence, cyber security, digital skills, and wider use of these technologies. Source: European Union

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