Understanding the technical mechanics of this kind of thing usually takes a few years of studying at degree level. Luckily, we won't have to have an Einsteinian grasp of the technicalities to benefit from it. But while it promises to lead us into a new era of discovery in fields like astrophysics, drug discovery and material sciences, there are still a few common misconceptions about what it will do and how it will impact society. Here I’ll overview the five that I most frequently encounter.
1. Classical Computers Will Be Replaced By Quantum Computers
Quantum computers are not likely to ever replace classical computers (those that translate information into binary bits – ones and zeroes – in order to digitally process it). There are lots of tasks that will simply never require the immense power of quantum computing, which has the potential to perform calculations that would take classical computers billions or even trillions of years in hours or minutes. However, the average computer user will have no need to use quantum computing for purposes of communication, creativity or business tasks. This means classical computers that are far cheaper and easier to produce will be with us for some time yet.
2. Quantum Computers Are Faster At Every Kind Of Job
Quantum computers excel at a subset of mathematical problems that are only required for complex tasks. Lots of these involve scientific research – for example, if physicists want to build a simulation to model the behavior of sub-atomic particles, they need a computer capable of operating on quantum principles. They are also great for modeling non-quantum, but still highly complex, systems such as financial markets, meteorological patterns and biological ecosystems.
One particular mathematical challenge they’re used for is optimization problems that involve picking an optimum combination from among a large number of variables. This means they will become increasingly useful in machine learning as neural networks become more complex and capable of analyzing larger volumes of data.
However, when it comes to most day-to-day tasks, we use computers for – from word processing to watching videos and playing games – they’re unlikely to offer any significant speed increase just yet. Software developers have spent decades optimizing the way these are done on classical computers, whereas quantum developers are just getting started.
3. Quantum Computing Means The End Of Encryption
Quantum computing has important implications for encryption – the technology that underpins basically all privacy and data security on the internet.
It won’t render it all useless, but encryption protocols – including those widely used to secure data on the internet, such as RSA and ECC - are far more vulnerable to quantum-powered hacking attacks than they are to classical hacking attacks.
This problem has been on the radar for some time, and cryptologists have been busy working on “quantum-safe” encryption protocols.
In the US, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is currently undergoing an evaluation of the threat and potential remedies of post-quantum encryption. In absolute terms, it’s right that there are no protocols that we know for sure will never become vulnerable to quantum attacks. The quantum computing power available to us in 20 years will be exponentially greater than what we have now. However, it’s thought that investigations into fields such as lattice-based cryptography and cryptography based on multivariate polynomials will result in new protocols that will be safe for some time yet.
4. There’s No Practical Use For Quantum Computers Yet
It’s still very early days in the evolution of the quantum revolution, but it's certainly a mistake to think that it hasn’t started.
Delivery giant DHL uses quantum computers to optimize delivery routes, Goldman Sachs has developed quantum algorithms that are used to complete financial calculations at high speed, pharmaceutical conglomerate Merk uses quantum chemistry to help develop new antibiotics, and a partnership between BMW and Airbus is working applying quantum technology to the problems around creating new and more efficient fuel cells.
New use cases for quantum computing appear by the day, and the market that’s today valued at $866 million globally is forecast to expand to $4.3 billion by 2028.
5. Quantum Computing Is Only Viable For Governments And Big Business
While the cost of quantum computers themselves is certainly high, and they need to be kept and operated in highly secure and controlled environments, access to the technology is coming down in price.
Many of the problems that can be solved with quantum computers are relevant to smaller businesses and organizations, such as optimizing supply chains or creating new products more efficiently.
This means that quantum computing providers are already developing and offering services designed to make the technology accessible to these businesses, which make up over 90 percent of the global economy.
IBM, Google and IonQ are just three examples of quantum computing providers that offer access as-a-service to small companies and research groups.