IBM’s Juan Bernabé-Moreno: ‘Understanding nature using traditional computers is impossible’

The Spanish computer scientist says quantum computing is essential for responding to the global climate emergency

Raúl Limón
Juan Bernabé-Moreno
IBM's Juan Bernabé-Moreno in front of an image of one of the company's quantum computers.IBM

Juan Bernabé-Moreno is IBM’s director of research for Ireland and the United Kingdom. The Spanish computer scientist is also responsible for IBM’s climate and sustainability strategy, which is being developed by seven global laboratories using artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing. He believes quantum computing is better suited to understanding nature and matter than classical or traditional computers.

Question. Is artificial intelligence a threat to humanity?

Answer. Artificial intelligence can be used to cause harm, but it’s crucial to distinguish between intentional and malicious use of AI, and unintended behavior due to lack of data control or governance rigor.

Q. IBM has developed governance tools, but malicious people presumably won’t use them.

A. How do we prevent computer viruses? It’s challenging because of people who don’t share certain values. However, one effective approach is to promote open education within the community. By making AI benefits accessible to all and encouraging community involvement, we can prevent misuse. This approach is more scalable than relying on a few individuals, as we have observed in the field of cybersecurity. Our tools are open, and the community actively contributes to their development.

Q. What does IBM’s announcement about the beginning of the quantum utility era mean??

A. This year marks a significant milestone in quantum computing. Until now, quantum advantage had only been demonstrated theoretically, without practical implementation. However, this year, we have successfully developed a quantum computer that outperforms classical or traditional systems. It was able to solve a magnetization problem with the help of error mitigation routines. It may be possible to develop a perfect quantum computer in seven years, but I’m not setting any hard and fast dates.

Q. So what will we have seven years from now?

A. It’s called quantum-centric supercomputing — a supercomputer focused on quantum capabilities while also incorporating classical components. This includes the latest advancements in hardware. Our goal is to combine the power of quantum and classical computing. For instance, when it comes to machine learning, classical computing is needed for data processing in bits. Quantum computing is used for the actual processing, but the final interpretation of the data requires classical computing again. So, classical computing remains an integral part of the equation alongside quantum computing. In terms of hardware, the current Eagle processor has undergone multiple iterations. However, effective communication between units is crucial. We’ve learned from classical computing that monolithic systems are difficult to control. Instead, we rely on smaller units that we connect using classical links.

Q. Could quantum computing and artificial intelligence together pose a threat to humanity?

A. Let’s use the example of factoring in cybersecurity. Quantum computing has the potential to render current cryptography systems obsolete. To mitigate this risk, we are developing quantum security algorithms [quantum-safe cryptography] that cannot be breached. We already have three such algorithms at the NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology] that are contributing to alternative cryptography methods. Embracing innovative technology opens up many new opportunities.

Q. But what if it’s used by communities that don’t share our values?

A. We have been working for 40 years at IBM to develop the science of quantum information and have a strong foundation in chip development. But not many people have access to the advanced technology required to achieve quantum utility.

Q. What does quantum computing enable?

A. One of the most promising aspects that drew me to quantum, which I teach at the university, is its ability to tackle subjects beyond the reach of classical computing methods. Quantum enables us to discover intricate data relationships that are otherwise elusive. Artificial intelligence is also very helpful in revealing data relationships. When combined with quantum computing, it becomes a powerful tool. However, the true breakthrough lies in simulation. Understanding nature and the behavior of particles using traditional computers is impossible — quantum is the key to understanding matter.

Q. And this enables us to understand the origin of the universe as well as diseases?

A. Targeted therapies can benefit greatly from its application. By delving into the molecular and cellular levels, we gain a deeper understanding of how these therapies work. Quantum research in this field is already underway, offering promising advancements. These small steps are paving the way for a future where we can comprehend nature and matter like never before. This newfound understanding will have significant implications for designing new materials and advancements in the biological field.

Q. Does it require significant energy consumption, like artificial intelligence?

A. Quantum requires less data and energy to comprehend new relationships and for training. It has low consumption, enabling faster and more extensive calculations.

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