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Large technology companies like Google, IBM and Intel – along with many of the world’s top research organizations and best-funded government agencies – are focussed on bringing about “quantum supremacy”.
What is Quantum Supremacy
Quantum supremacy is the theoretical future state in which any task that a classical computer performs can be done better by a quantum computer. It will mean that computer processing power will drastically increase, and this increase will, in turn, have numerous – and currently unimaginable – benefits in many diverse sectors. Not least of these sectors is industrial automation.
History Behind Industrial Automation
Since General Electric began giving over sections of its car-manufacturing processes to the automatic systems of relays, cam timers, drum sequencers and dedicated closed-loop controllers in the middle of the twentieth century, industrial automation has been a primary driver of human civilization’s progress. These early industrial automation systems were operated by human controllers, and programming them was limited by the mechanical systems described.
All of that changed with the introduction of information technology to industrial automation from the 1970s. This meant that programmable logic controllers (PLCs) could be purchased almost “off-the-shelf” and programmed to control numerous different industrial processes. Later developments began to automate both the input systems and robotic outputs and were reliant upon advances in information technology and classical computers. These included distributed control systems (DCSs) and Supervisory Control and Acquisition Data (SCADA), which gave computers control of entire factory processes.
As is the case in all kinds of robotics, industrial automation in the current era is limited by the processing limits of classical computers. Ever larger and more complex factories – and even networks of factories and their supply lines – are relying upon classical computers to monitor inputs, control outputs, and achieve maximum efficiency in the industrial system. With driverless cars, unmanned aircraft (drones), and a host of smart devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly becoming part of the industrial automation landscape, the networks of inputs and outputs – and the computers processing data and programming functions – classical computers are reaching the limit of their practical application.
Effect of Quantum Computing in Industrial Automation
As soon as quantum supremacy can be achieved, the benefits of quantum computing will directly impact industrial automation and the rest of human society. The drastically greater processing power that practical quantum computers could achieve will enable, at the macro-level of industrial automation, entire processes to be safely automated. This is because a quantum computer will be able to handle millions of inputs from throughout the system, accurately identifying exactly what is happening in the industrial process at any moment.
This accurate identification can be effectively processed in a quantum computer, with all functions being processed at the same time. This processing can then give the computer the data it needs to control further processes, enabling, for example, frictionless just-in-time manufacturing where IoT-connected refrigerators generate a signal that ultimately reproduces stock in a factory and delivers it to the end-users. Such control of entire economic functions in society could lead to enormous reductions in waste and may be the key to enabling much greater human populations to live on the planet safely.
At smaller levels, industrial automation will benefit from quantum computing due, again, to the improved ability to gather and process large amounts of information. Here, complex and necessarily precise manufacturing processes – like semiconductor or even quantum computer manufacture – could be reliably automated.
A final benefit that quantum computing could bring to industrial automation is, in some ways, unimaginable today. Artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered by quantum computers would be much more powerful than the iterations of the technology in use today. This would mean that an automatic computer system could rapidly prototype and develop new technologies, manufacturing processes, and products according to a set of programmed parameters – such as “find the most efficient way of generating and distributing the energy our city needs”.
In this way, the benefits of quantum computing in industrial automation remain to be discovered, and will certainly change human life just as information technology and the first industrial automation processes in the automotive industry did in the last century.