The machine seems to come from the future. It looks like an upside-down mounted piece made of gold-plated cables and metal rods held from the ceiling. The trays are arranged in decreasing order of size, down to the smallest placed at eye level and in which there is a chip. This is where the brain of this quantum computer is located, which must be cooled to a level close to absolute zero (-273.15 degrees Celsius).
The start-up Alice & Bob chose this industrial hotel in the south of Paris to be certain of having the electrical capacities and the adequate pressure conditions for its monster. Very far from our desktop PCs, it does not work with traditional bits either (0s or 1s). Here, we enter a new world, that of atomic physics, made up of qubits capable of simultaneously processing several states (0s and 1s at the same time).
This quantum superposition, added to other puzzling principles of the infinitely small, gives incredible results. Some complex problems that usually require hours and days of supercomputer calculations could be solved in seconds.
“This technology can potentially transform many sectors: finance, chemicals, transport… enthuses Théau Peronnin, co-founder and CEO of Alice & Bob. The uses are very numerous.” Whether it’s optimizing the sell order of stocks in a stock portfolio, predicting how a protein will unfold in order to create new drugs, or unclogging a traffic jam by offering alternative routes to motorists, each application could change our lives. Even armies could use it to secure their communications, or, conversely, break the protection systems of foreign powers and access their secrets.
The implications are such that the consulting firm BCG estimates between 450 and 850 billion dollars the economic gains brought by this innovation by 2040. Each country wants its share of the cake, but it is still necessary to put the means. To each his own plan: 790 million dollars for Russia, 1.2 billion dollars for the United States and up to 10 billion for China. And again, these masses of money do not take into account the enormous financial means of private digital companies such as, across the Atlantic, Google, IBM, Amazon, or Baidu and Alibaba in the Middle Kingdom.
And France does not intend to miss this revolution. “As part of the investments for the future, we are devoting 1 billion euros to which must be added 800 million from the European Union and industrial groups, explains Neil Abroug, coordinator for the French quantum strategy. This computer is the Holy Grail everyone is running after.”
But before reaching it, many technical obstacles remain to be overcome. One in particular is problematic. These strange machines still generate too many errors that need to be corrected. Worse still, the more powerful they are, the more the volume of errors explodes. Whoever succeeds in making them disappear will therefore take a serious option on the competition. But such progress is not expected before 2029. “In this marathon, we all start on an equal footing, including against Google or IBM, explains Théau Peronnin. The important thing is to attract the best talents from the field of physics and France is well placed thanks to the quality of its researchers and its laboratories.”
All these talents work on different types of qubits. No less than five avenues are explored around the world without anyone knowing yet which one will lead to success. “Perhaps even a sixth way will shake everything up and will ultimately be the right one, explains Jean-François Bobier, director at BCG. In the meantime, France can count on its promising young shoots in four of the five fields of research. “
Polytechnicians for some, normaliens for others, the founders of C12, Alice & Bob or Quandela came out of the Grandes Ecoles and have very strong links with the CNRS or the CEA. Backed by the Institute of Optics at the University of Paris-Saclay, Pasqal even has as president one of the popes of quantum physics, Alain Aspect, decorated with the prestigious Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr medals. The start-up was supported by the Ministry of the Armed Forces via its Definvest fund.
Daphni, Elaia, 360 Capital, Quantonation or Bpifrance… all have put their hands in their pockets to support these four musketeers who have managed to raise between 10 and 27 million euros each in recent months. “We now have the means to create the first French Gafa but a long way remains to be covered”, judge Georges-Olivier Reymond, founder of Pasqal.
Another positive point, the country can rely on its industrial groups supplying key components for computers: cryogenics to ensure their cooling with liquid Air, ultraminiature connectors at Radiall, control electronics for Teledyne… “The ecosystem is there and we have everything to succeed, underlines the consultant Olivier Ezratty. The question is whether, in the end, the United States will still prevail thanks to their enormous financial means.
Bercy has placed quantum in the strategic sectors to watch. Because Google with its 169 billion dollars in cash, Amazon (96 billion) or IBM (6.6 billion) can buy out any competitor. And they are not alone. Newcomers, very well financed, also have the means to do their shopping. Start-ups in the sector raised $1.7 billion last year, up 140% year-on-year according to McKinsey.
And several American companies in the field have even already entered the stock market in recent months at stratospheric valuations: 2.5 billion dollars for IonQ and 800 million for Rigetti. Amounts disproportionate to their ridiculous turnover: the first made $ 2.1 million in 2021 while the second recorded 8.2 million. Both rent their computing power through the computing cloud (cloud) to companies or organizations to carry out tests or try their hand at programming.
Everyone must practice and gain experience on these new machines. To work, they must rely on new software and quantum algorithms that remain to be developed. “It’s a bit like in clinical research, says Jean-François Bobier, at BCG. Laboratories have to look for a vaccine and at the same time build manufacturing plants to produce it on a large scale, and that requires resources. He we still lack this capital in France to change scale.” Mastering the infinitely small requires a lot of money, with no guarantee of success. That’s the beauty of adventure.
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