There is perhaps no frontier more exciting–or daunting–than quantum computing. Its promise is nothing less than transforming modern technologies in every industry from healthcare to manufacturing to national defense. It will take our current, digital world of ones and zeroes and transform it into one of qubits.
Depending on who you ask, this promise of quantum computing is either right around the corner or a long way off. How close quantum computing is to usefulness in the real world could depend on how you define success and what milestones you look to. Versions of quantum computing are already being rolled out with varying degrees of success. One thing is for certain, advancements in the technologies involved are sure to impact the next generation of progress and innovative problem solving.
What is quantum computing?
Quantum computing’s potential may be best understood by comparing it to conventional computing. Conventional computing is binary, representing information in bits–or, strings of ones and zeroes. Quantum computers can store and process information as ones, zeroes, or both simultaneously. This dual state is called superposition, a concept from quantum mechanics that allows for the processing of multiple computations at once. This is opposed to the classic computer, which is only able to run a single process at a time. Quantum computing is currently to be 158 million times more powerful than any known supercomputer. And it isn’t just quantum processing but also quantum storage that offers promise: 100 qubits can hold more computational states than all the hard disk drives in the world.
Key to the processing speed of quantum computing is entanglement–the immediate sharing of information between two systems no matter how far apart they are. Quantum entanglement is necessary for a quantum algorithm to offer exponential performance over classical computing. It permits superdense coding or the allowing of two bits of information to be sent using just one qubit of information.
Strides in Quantum Computing
These technologies are attracting a lot of investment for their practical potential in the short term. Investors expect to start receiving returns before the end of the decade. While full quantum computing as imagined by the engineers in public and private sector laboratories is probably still decades away, the technology’s building blocks are already being applied to real-world problems. In the short term, quantum is expected to advance the field of predictive analytics in areas like business, cyber security, and logistics.
Full gate-model, error-free quantum computing is still years away, but private companies are already making use of what’s called quantum annealers to solve optimization problems. Even in its more rudimentary form, quantum computing can act as an accelerator for the sorts of processes performed by classic computers, like in the case of D-Wave’s Advantage. Qubit technology is already excellent at performing hundreds or thousands of computations quickly, so it is good at making calculations where there are hundreds of interrelated variables at play–such as meteorology. Companies like MasterCard, Deloitte, and Volkswagen are already using quantum annealers in their businesses.
Legacy companies like IBM have unveiled their own qubit computers, although the organizations using their technologies aren’t yet paying customers. Other quantum developers include Google, which claims to have produced results for complex computations in mere minutes. These companies are applying their technologies to use cases in a variety of fields, including finance and pharmaceuticals.
Quantum computers face a number of challenges, even in the short term. Serious challenges to real-world application aren’t computational power but rather, system sensitivity. Open-gate computers in particular have demanding energy requirements and need highly stable (and cold) environments to work. Outside disruptions are called “noise” and can easily disrupt the fragile qubit, knocking it out of its superpositional state. Changes in temperature or even excessive vibrations can produce errors in a qubit’s micro-systems.
Broader Innovation Impact
Similar to how the space race between the US and the then-USSR of the 1960s left a legacy of innovation, quantum computing is expected to do the same. The race to space gave us advancements in durable materials, water filtration, solar panels, infrared thermometers, and more.
Relevant examples also include medical imaging techniques, durable healthcare equipment, artificial limbs, firefighting equipment, shock absorbers, air purifiers, home insulation, and countless other vital inventions. In decades following the moon landing, we developed insulin pumps, scratch-resistant lenses, and artificial limbs all designed using space-age technology.
There are similar expectations for quantum computing which is challenging scientists to make advancements in mathematics, physics, and chemistry to create accurate and stable quantum hardware and software systems. These are expected to have an immediate impact on maturing revolutionary technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented reality.