A Chinese team of researchers has recently unveiled the world’s most powerful quantum computer – capable of manipulating 66 qubits of data. At the same time, a team at Cambridge University in the UK has created a quantum computing desktop operating system – which could be as significant a step at bringing quantum capabilities into the mainstream as Microsoft’s development of MS-DOS and Windows was for classical desktop computing.
With this in mind, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at the current state of play with quantum computing – a technological leap that’s expected to bring us computers capable of operating many thousands of times more quickly than the fastest classical processors available today. What is quantum computing, why are so many people excited about it, and how is it expected to affect our lives? Read on to find out!
First – what is quantum computing? Well, explaining it in simple terms is quite difficult because it's quite a complicated concept! “Quantum” means “sub-atomic” and, in computing as in physics, is used to describe properties demonstrated by matter when we study it at a sub-atomic level. Often these properties don’t seem to fit with the basic rules of physics that are observable when studying matter of atom-sized or larger. At a sub-atomic level, properties such as entanglement (a connection between particles that means they share the same state, no matter how far apart they are) and superposition (where particles can behave as if they simultaneously exist in two different states) can be observed.
One concept that is worth getting your head around is the difference between bits and qubits (pronounced "Q-bits"). Regular computers (referred to as "classical" computers, in the context of quantum computing) store and read data in the form of binary "bits" that can either have a state of one (1) or zero (0). Quantum computers use qubits, which take advantage of quantum phenomena like superposition and entanglement, meaning they can be used to perform certain complex forms of calculation far more quickly than could ever be possible using classical computation algorithms (or in some cases, could never be done at all without quantum algorithms … see quantum supremacy.)
Thankfully It isn't necessary to fully understand the mechanics of quantum computers in order to use them or to understand how they are likely to affect our lives in the future! From a procedural point of view, though, it involves cooling super-conductive material 99% of the way to absolute zero (-273 degrees C/ 459 degrees F). Electrons are then passed through this material, which are targeted by photons (electromagnetic particles with no mass). This interaction means the quantum effects acting occurring in the particles can be controlled and measured– becoming the qubits that can be used to store or process information.
What is quantum computing used for today?
Quantum computing is a huge area of experimental research and development right now, but practical applications are emerging. The big cloud computing providers (Amazon, Google, and Microsoft) have all made quantum computing services available on their platforms, and the Alliance for Quantum Technologies, founded by AT&T and the California Institute of Technology, has been established to help progress quantum computing from the realm of the theoretical into practical applications.
Primarily, quantum computing is used to solve computational problems that would take far too long using classical methods. One example is analyzing and interpreting data collected by the Large Hadron Collider. The underground supercollider that accelerates subatomic particles through 27 kilometers of tunnels, reaching speeds of up to 99.9% of the speed of light, generates a petabyte of data per second. CERN, which operates the collider, is currently investigating implementing quantum computing to process this data. Before quantum was a possibility, much of it was discarded because there simply weren’t enough classical computers in the world for it to ever be analyzed!
Quantum computing is also useful for creating super-powerful encryption – enabling data to be locked away far more securely than it could otherwise be. In 2017, the world’s first quantum-secured intercontinental video call took place between scientists in Austria and China. Of course, once quantum computing is accessible to everyone, it won’t be long before we have to worry about quantum-powered hacking, too – with some experts predicting that most of the classical methods of encryption used to secure data on the internet today will be vulnerable to quantum-based attacks.
It’s also used to solve the extremely complex calculations needed to model biological organisms, such as protein behavior in molecular simulations. Researchers at Canadian biotech firm ProteinQure have partnered with Microsoft to use quantum computing to research genomic-based treatments for illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
And carmakers including Volkswagen and Daimler are using quantum computing methods to design longer-lasting and more efficient batteries for electric cars. Here, it’s useful because the patterns of chemical decay that occur as batteries lose their charge are hugely complex, and predicting their behavior isn’t reliable with classical computer technology. Working with quantum pioneers D-Wave, Volkswagen has also created models that can accurately simulate and predict traffic conditions on Beijing’s massively congested road networks.
What is the future of quantum computing?
In the near future – perhaps within 5 to 10 years, but who knows, maybe a lot sooner – quantum computing will be at a stage where it can be used to solve problems that improve our lives, on an everyday basis – Intel’s head of quantum research, Jim Clarke, calls this “quantum practicality."
Quantum won’t entirely replace classical computing – not in the foreseeable future, anyway – for many computational tasks it won’t offer any real advantage. For the types of complex calculations that it does excel at, though, we can expect to see computers that operate hundreds of millions of times more quickly.
The development of a standardized desktop operating system – mentioned at the start of this post – could be an important step towards quantum practicality. Classical computers, such as the mainframes created by IBM in the mid 20th century, did not start to become practical for everyday uses until universal operating systems and programming languages became available. Currently, the control systems for a quantum computer fill a small room – this breakthrough shrinks it down to a single chip.
Once this practicality is established, experts hope that quantum computers will be used to create applications that help us to tackle climate change. One of the ways this could be achieved is by creating new types of agricultural fertilizer. Switching to new synthesized fertilisers could cut the world’s natural gas consumption by three to five percent. This will be done by creating new catalyzing molecules that are more efficient at creating the necessary chemicals.
Quantum computers also have huge implications for artificial intelligence and machine learning. These cognitive computing processes – involving programs that are capable of learning and becoming better at their jobs – operate using vast neural networks, which require a great deal of computer power. Quantum-powered AI will give us machines that are able to think and learn more quickly than ever.
This will enable more sophisticated systems to be simulated and modeled. Simulation depends on us understanding reality, in order to replicate its rules within our models. This means understanding the behavior of matter and a quantum level. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped define much of what we know about quantum, argued that only quantum computers would be powerful enough to accurately simulate quantum activity.
Once this is possible (and it will require quantum computers many times more powerful than those we have today, in the region of thousands of qubits), we should be able to build accurately simulated models of systems far too complex to be modeled today – such as electromagnetic radiation, gravity and perhaps even biological brains.
Whatever emerges, it’s clear that quantum computing is a hugely exciting area of technological progress, and we can expect to see it increasingly impacting our lives overcoming years – perhaps in as significant a way as the arrival of computers in the last century, and the growth of the internet in this century.