Quantum computing is an area of research. Yes, despite all the hype you might have heard about this topic, a proper quantum computer does not exist yet.
Quantum theory explains the nature and behavior of energy and matter on atomic and subatomic level. On quantum principles, scientists are building a new generation of supercomputers. They will be much faster than existing ones and capable of crunching huge amounts of data. Big data will look like small data and hopefully will become smart data.
But this is not the only reason why quantum computing is important. The other one is the end of the Moore’s law, the observation that the number of transistors on a microprocessor continues to double every 18 months. This happens because we put more and more transistors in the same space, but between 2020 and 2030 the circuits on a microprocessor will be measured on the atomic scale. This process has a limit. The smallest transistor that the current technology is able to produce measures 30 atoms. At some point we will maybe create transistors made by one atom, but then it’s finished. Quantum computers are one of the potential solutions after the end of the silicon age. They will harness the power of atoms to perform memory and processing tasks.
How quantum computing work?
I wondered a lot adding this section, because I’m not a physicist, but my task is to make it simple, so let me try. It’s all about parallelism. I believe the example of the Library of Congress can help. Imagine you have a few minutes to find a book with a big X on it, among the 50 million books in the Library. If you are alone and you act like a regular computer, you begin to run around like crazy, checking each book sequentially to find the right one. If there are 50 million of “yous” in the room, each one in front of a book, it would take a blink of an eye to complete the task.
We know that conventional computers rely on data encoded into the binary system of 0s and 1s. In binary, the state of a bit is either 0 or 1 and that’s all its “position” can be. If we have a sequence of many 0s and 1s, let’s say one billion of possible values, a classical computer can only be in one of these one billion states at the same time. Quantum computers use qubits or quantum bits, whose “superposition” can be both 0 and 1 simultaneously. A quantum computer can be in a quantum combination of all those states, called superposition. It would gain enormous processing power through the ability to be in multiple states, and to perform tasks using all possible permutations simultaneously.
What does it mean “fast”? I quote. “A 30-qubit quantum computer would equal the processing power of a conventional computer that could run at 10 teraflops (trillions of floating-point operations per second). Today’s typical desktop computers run at speeds measured in gigaflops (billions of floating-point operations per second).” Source.
People argue that we could get the same effect having a billion standard computers working in parallel. This is true, but there’s a crucial difference. For a parallel computer, we need to have one billion different processors. In a quantum computer, all one billion computations will be running on the same hardware. And that’s not trivial.
I’m sure this fact about being 0 and 1 at the same time puzzles a lot of people. So I have added a video, among many available on the web, which I think explains it fairly well. Six minutes’ worth watching what quantum computing means.
We understand now that the number of computations a quantum computer could undertake is 2^n, where n is the number of qubits used. A quantum computer with 300 qubits would have a potential to do 2^300 calculations in a single step. This number is roughly the number of particles in the universe.
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What can we do with such a supercomputer?
Optimization. They are especially equipped for solving complex problems that feature many independent variables. So, we want to be clear: quantum computing is not for every type of calculation. If you need a word processor or the standard excel spreadsheet features, your current laptop is enough. And it is probably faster than any quantum computer could be. But if you need searching huge amounts of data or finding the needle in a haystack, they will be great.
Scientist believe that the first application of quantum computing would be around the quantum theory itself. This enormous processing power will be useful for scientists for conducting virtual experiments. It will allow us to study, in remarkable detail, the interactions between atoms and molecules. For example, we could model the behavior of atoms and particles at unusual conditions without actually creating those unusual conditions. In other words, pieces of equipment like the Large Hadron Collider would become obsolete.
I see, then, a quantum computer as an innovation enabler. It can free up time and resources that can be invested somewhere else. Then looking around the web there’s a long wish list of topics. Encryption or decryption is one of the favorite topics. This explains why military and government agencies are behind this innovation. Some say that with a quantum computer, NSA would be necessary just to retrieve your password when you forget it.
Then we come to a plethora of applications, each one being a dream. Accurate weather forecasts. Traffic congestion management. Scheduling the most efficient routes for deliveries. Financial portfolio optimization. Drug discovery and cures. Design new materials. Accelerating space exploration. Find life and understand if we are alone or not? Or simply give more power to machine learning and ease artificial intelligence creation? Others say that the true potential of quantum computers likely hasn’t even been imagined yet.
This second video gives a flavor of the infinite possibilities behind quantum computing. It also helps to understand words like superposition, entanglement and tunneling, which are peculiar of the theory.
What is going to happen in the future?
For 25 years we tried making quantum computers and they are still experimental. We know they are complex. First, quantum computing must take place near absolute zero temperatures. Not suitable for your smartphone yet. Second it’s fragile. Heat, electromagnetic radiation and material defects can cause interference and generate errors in calculation. Qubits are so fragile that searching for errors can result in more errors. Yale researchers, only this year, demonstrated for the first time the ability to track real quantum errors as they occur.
As of today, quantum computers just solved a sudoku puzzle and factored some large numbers. You might have spot about D-Wave, a quantum computer able to outperform a conventional one by 10 times on some calculations. They already claim an impressive list of applications. Water network optimization. Radiotherapy optimization. Protein folding. Object detection. Video compression. Montecarlo simulation. And counting.
I don’t want to enter in the debate if D-Wave is a real quantum computer or just an adiabatic quantum annealer, which would be only a quantum simulator. The reality is that we are approaching to the right hardware. Companies like Google, NASA, Intel and Microsoft are investing in quantum computing research and they’re not doing it for the glory. We are far from a “product” and we are even missing a killer app, but a company tech race to quantum computing dominance, has started.
So we can imagine what is going to happen. And we have two scenarios. The first is cooperation. Scientists, public agencies and private companies cooperate to get a quantum computer done. In the meantime governments agree to ban its use as a weapon. When almost ready, programmers kick in and begin to develop solutions. In fact, they will need to write programs in a completely new way. Quantum computing as a service will become available on the market. Businesses will begin to buy computation power for their scopes. For example, prompting the best advertising possible to each individual consumer. The same will happen for wealthy people. For example, optimizing a molecule for your particular cancer type or rare disease.
The second scenario is competition. Several aggregations of private companies, University and Public Agency will get to quantum computers separately. Governments will keep their applications reserved and use them for national security and defense. Private companies will sell time of the machines as a service. The model is the same. The more the market grows, the more the costs decrease, leading to mass market applications and also devices.
Whatever the approach, it won’t be before 2035 probably.
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