“Quantum computers will be able to do things that are inconceivable today”
We interviewed Victor Canivell, co-founder of Qilimanjaro, a joint spin-off of the University of Barcelona, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, and the Institute of High Energy Physics, which is dedicated to the development and commercialisation of quantum computers for specific applications with the aim of securing significant early market advantages.
We talked to Canivell about the present and future of quantum computing, a revolutionary technology that will have a major medium-term impact, leading to new technologies and applications. For example, it will make it possible to develop better materials, make better financial model predictions, improve risk management in the financial industry, and break cryptographic keys currently used by computer viruses.
Could you explain, in a simple way, what is the difference between conventional computing and quantum computing?
Quantum computing is a new computing paradigm, a totally different way of performing calculations. Picture yourself trying to find your way out of a maze. First you go one way, then another, and you try different options. You try to remember where you went until you get lucky and find the combination that gets you out of the maze. This is one way to solve the problem, the one used by conventional computing.
And how would quantum computing find a way out of the maze?
With quantum computing you would be inside the maze, but you would have a drone. This drone would go straight up and show you the whole map of the maze through the camera so that you could immediately see which route to take to get out of the maze. These are two different ways of solving the same problem, but quantum computing uses different chips and hardware that are able to process information in parallel at the same time, allowing you to find the solution more quickly.
How will quantum computing impact society?
Quantum computers will be able to do things that are inconceivable today. It will be a small revolution, complementing the technology we currently have. Quantum computing will provide answers to problems that cannot be solved with traditional computing systems, but to get there, we still have a long way to go. At the moment, we have prototypes that are not perfect; a bit like in the early days of computing, when there were rooms full of machinery. Years later, we have mobile phones and laptops that are much more powerful than the computers that took NASA to the Moon.
How will quantum computing impact economy?
Among other things, quantum computing will determine how best to optimise resources. For example, in the financial sector, banks have to decide where and how to make investments. This translates into mathematical problems that can be solved much more quickly and efficiently. The same is true for logistics and freight transport by road, rail, ship, plane, etc. Quantum computing will help us decide how to best implement this transport by optimising existing resources as much as possible. Optimisation is one of its most important applications, along with Quantum Machine Learning and quantum chemistry, an intrinsically quantum problem in which the exponential nature of the alternatives makes an exact calculation on a conventional computer impossible, regardless of its size.
And how will quantum impact national security?
Secure internet access is made possible thanks to cryptography, which protects information by means of mathematical calculations that are very difficult to carry out. Quantum computing will make calculations that are impossible today feasible. It will therefore undermine today’s cryptography posing a serious problem, especially for countries and companies that want to keep their data confidential. The world’s richest states are interested in investing in and monitoring this technology.
It was recently announced that Qilimanjaro would be responsible for installing the first quantum computer in Spain. What does this news mean to you?
It was a very significant and spectacular announcement. For us to be able to install the first quantum computer in Spain is a fundamental milestone. This computer will be installed in the Supercomputing Center and will complement Mare Nostrum, which is its supercomputer. We came into being in 2020, and at the end of 2021, we installed the first quantum computer in the United Arab Emirates, a success for a start-up that had just launched. Since then, technology has advanced a lot and will allow us to do much more ambitious things in the case of Quantum-Spain at the BSC. The truth is that we are very excited about this challenge that we are about to undertake.
You have also been awarded a major grant from the European Innovation Council. In total, in the past few years, Qilimanjaro has received over nine million euros in funding, accumulated revenues of over two million euros and signed contracts for an additional eight million euros in new business. Quite impressive!
This technology is just in its infancy, it is emerging, and the support of public authorities via subventions is very important. Qilimanjaro grew out of the academic world and it is essential that the different public programmes, both in terms of subventions and public procurement, help emerging companies once the new technologies enter the market.
Another important development is that you have secured your first investors.
Exactly, we have secured our first investors. On the one hand, we have Repsol, which aims to become carbon neutral by 2050. They are investing in a series of new technologies, but to achieve their goal, they need a considerable computational capacity. They know that quantum computing is very promising and they are very interested in learning about and investing in a company like ours. On the other hand, we also have another investor, Axis Participaciones, which is public and depends on the Ministry of Finance, and a third investor, Grow Venture Partners, which focuses on deep tech.
How will you face the medium-term challenges ahead? Will Qilimanjaro grow?
All this funding we have received will allow us to expand our infrastructure and our team. We are about 30 people now and we want to grow to about 40. We need to grow in terms of capacity to make chips and algorithms and we need funding to be able to expand the lab so that we can push ahead more quickly with what we want to do. The world of quantum computing, both the academic world and the big companies working in this sector, is moving very quickly and we need to advance as fast or even faster than them.
More about Víctor Canivell
What is the best invention in history?
The wheel, penicillin, and computers — and nowadays, CRISPR.
What would you like to see in the future?
An enlightened, just, and peaceful world; one that is able to enjoy and control new technologies.
A future advancement that scares you?
All technological advancements can be used for noble purposes, but they can also be used in atrocious ways. A well-informed society is essential to provide constructive and responsible frameworks for action. At the moment, AI models such as Chat-GPT are trending, having an impressive impact, but they need to be regulated. How? This is the heart of the matter. Understanding the technology we want to regulate is crucial, and something similar will happen with quantum computing.
A role model?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a visionary, an engineer far ahead of his time, and Steve Jobs as one of the most influential innovators in the ICT sector.
The FBG has helped you to…
… launch Qilimanjaro when it was just an idea in the minds of its five founders; negotiate a partnership agreement with the institutions of which we are a spin-off; start talking to the first venture capital funds; and in short, take our first steps.