First bridge to quantum computers – Interview of Christian Leutner, Fujitsu

Quantum computers are still a matter of the future, but Fujitsu has developed a quantum computer-inspired chip with its Digital Annealer. Christian Leutner reports on the practical problems the chip will solve. He explains who benefits from it and how it is marketed. A large number of large IT companies are involved in the development of quantum computers. In practical, widely applicable quantum computer is not in sight. However, users can now at least begin to breathe “quantum computing air”. Fujitsu’s newly developed chip ‘Digital Annealer’ builds a bridge between conventional computers and real quantum computers.
quantum computers

Fujitsu’s technology is designed to solve complex combinatorial problems quickly and reliably. Christian Leutner is vice president and head of product sales at Fujitsu. He explains the background of the chip development and shows his practical potential.

Mr. Leutner, quantum computing is considered a promising future technology. 

Exaggeratedly asked: When will the first Fujitsu quantum computer come onto the market?

Christian Leutner: A stable and high-accuracy, easy-to-use quantum computer does not yet exist. Also, the demands on the technical environment are very high and completely new compared to conventional IT infrastructures.  These demands comprises of complex cooling and shielding against electromagnetic radiation.Due to these circumstances, it is currently not possible to equip “normal” customers with quantum computers.

Quantum computing completely breaks the concept of classical arithmetic. 

What makes a difference?

Christian Leutner: Quantum computers work on the basis of quantum mechanical principles.This is the fundamentally different from conventional, binary digital computers. While in classical computing a bit can only assume the state 0 or 1, the so-called QuBits in quantum computing can occupy several states simultaneously. For a shorter time, states between 0 and 1 – this is the so-called supposition – are possible, which then fall back to 0 and 1.

Faster than current supercomputers

Due to these completely new non-classical (quantum-mechanical) principles, such a computer is capable of carrying out significantly more arithmetic operations simultaneously. As a result, a quantum computer is much faster in many tasks than the most powerful supercomputers currently available.

Now Fujitsu has developed a chip inspired by quantum computing with the “Digital Annealer”. 

How does this “quantum computers chip” work?

Christian Leutner: The chip developed by Fujitsu – we call it ” Digital Annealing Unit“, in short: DAU – is not a” quantum chip “or quantum computer in the true sense of the word, it works only on the model of the quantum computer and uses a simulation effect inspired by the quantum tunnel effect, which is called ‘annealing’. It absorbs a shortcut to avoid any extra effort and the problem to be solved is split up by parallelization and assessed largely simultaneously in the individual threads.This process is repeated many times in high numbers.Wanted, the previously unknown optimum of a value field is sought In a nutshell, it does not calculate the exact result in one run, but approaches the best value in many calculations.

For which practical problems can the chip be used?

Christian Leutner: The chip can be used particularly well in combinatorial optimization. Complex combinatorial problems can be solved quickly and easily with this chip – without us resorting to a real quantum computer. Just one example: If a conventional computer takes several hours to solve the well-known optimization problem of the traveling salesman, the DAU gets that in seconds or fractions of a second.

High utility in combinatorial tasks

Such theoretical questions as the problem of the traveling salesman are again and again in practical applications. For example, in the field of logistics or storage control, in medicine – keyword genome sequencing – the financial world, chemistry or molecular research. In all these areas you can do such combinatorial tasks much faster and also more accurately with the DAU.


The problem of the traveling salesman and role of Quantum Computers

It deals with the question of how to plan a journey through a certain number of cities and back to the starting point so that the total distance remains as short as possible. In four cities, the task is still easy to solve, in ten cities there are already 360,000 possible round trips, in 20 cities, the options go into the millions of billions. To solve this problem, companies, researchers and IT specialists have been trying for decades to develop suitable algorithms.

Which industries in the economy would particularly benefit from the DAU?

Christian Leutner: The areas of application range from investment optimization in the financial sector through logistics management to medicine and molecular research. In logistics, for example, charging capacities and distributions can be calculated better and gasoline requirements calculated more accurately. In cancer therapy, the radiation doses for tumor treatment can be tailored to each individual patient. And in chemistry, the design of molecules can be optimized.

In finance, for example, at the moment we have a proof of concept at the British bank NatWest. The institute aims to optimize its mix of liquid assets such as bonds, cash and government bonds in the project. This highly complex task is a perfect use case for our chip, because thousands of options need to be continually assembled to create an optimally balanced portfolio of assets. You can thus achieve optimal liquidity. And of course that’s very interesting for banks.

How can you ensure that the DAU actually plays its potential in practice?

Christian Leutner: The benefit for customers will be very individual. First and foremost we try to solve customer problems. And we have to look at these problems first. We do not want to go to the market with a technology solution and sell the technology as hardware or service without really knowing how to help the customer with it. We first want to understand the scenarios and the problems of the customer and then find customized solutions.

At the beginning is the determination of the customer requirement

On the one hand, we have established a co-creation approach in which we develop solutions together with our customers and partners. There we also want to find application scenarios that perfectly fit the theme of DAU. And second, there is a Digital Transformation Center in our office in Munich . There we work together with our customers and partners under ideal conditions and work out solution scenarios that we can then implement together with technologies such as the DAU.

Does the DAU have to be operated in the customer data center or in what form is it provided?

Christian Leutner: First of all: The Digital Annealer can be set up and operated in a conventional IT infrastructure. So you need no special conditions to operate this chip.

Typically, companies will approach the subject through appropriate proof of concepts. Therefore, we will certainly not market the chip on its own – as already indicated – but rely on services from the cloud. For most customers and application scenarios, a cloud service is likely to be by far the best option for the foreseeable future. For certain areas, we will probably also offer local solutions – such as for universities and research institutes. At least at the beginning, I see the Digital Annealer as a service from the cloud.

Is the Digital Annealer also an issue for the channel?

Christian Leutner: Quantum computing as well as our annealing unit are obviously not a classic channel topic at first glance. For smaller channel partners, this is very abstract. Of course, as the channel is and will remain a mainstay for Fujitsu, we are evaluating how we can make Chanel-ready such complex topics. And the aforementioned co-creation approach and workshops in the Digital Transformation Center are also open to the Channel. This method is perfectly suited to bring together customers, the Channel with its exact knowledge of the customer and its market, and our (technology) experts. This not only applies to the use of the Digital Annealer, but also to all topics relating to digitization.

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