There's a lot of hype floating around the general computer industry, hype centered around one specific technology that has the potential to change everything: quantum computers. Being our company's namesake, we'll admit to a bias in our bullishness around this tech, and over the course of this final chapter of our Future of Computers series, we hope to share with you just why that is.
At a basic level, a quantum computer offers an opportunity to manipulate information in a fundamentally different way. In fact, once this tech matures, these computers will not only solve mathematical problems faster than any computer currently in existence, but also any computer forecasted to exist over the next few decades (assuming Moore’s law holds true). In effect, similar to our discussion around supercomputers in our last chapter, future quantum computers will enable humanity to tackle ever larger questions that can help us gain a profoundly deeper understanding of the world around us.
What are quantum computers?
Hype aside, just how are quantum computers different than standard computers? And how do they work?
For visual learners, we recommend watching this fun, short video from the Kurzgesagt YouTube team about this topic:
Meanwhile, for our readers, we'll do our best to explain quantum computers without the need for a physics degree.
For starters, we need to recall that the basic unit of information computers process is a bit. These bits can have one of two values: 1 or 0, on or off, yes or no. If you combine enough of these bits together, you can then represent numbers of any size and do all manner of calculations on them, on after the other. The bigger or more powerful the computer chip, the bigger the numbers you can create and apply calculations, and the faster you can move from one calculation to another.
Quantum computers are different in two important ways.
First, is the advantage of “superposition.” While traditional computers operate with bits, quantum computers operate with qubits. The superposition effect qubits enable is that instead of being constrained to one of two possible values (1 or 0), a qubit can exist as a mixture of both. This feature allows quantum computers to operate more efficiently (faster) than traditional computers.
Second, is the advantage of “entanglement.” This phenomenon is a unique quantum physics behaviour that binds the destiny of a quantity of different particles, so that what happens to one will affect the others. When applied to quantum computers, this means they can manipulate all their qubits simultaneously—in other words, instead of doing a set of calculations one after another, a quantum computer could do them all at the same time.
The race to build the first quantum computer
This heading is somewhat of a misnomer. Leading companies like Microsoft, IBM and Google have already created the first experimental quantum computers, but these early prototypes feature less than two dozen qubits per chip. And while these early efforts are a great first step, tech companies and government research departments will need to build a quantum computer featuring at least 49 to 50 qubits for the hype to meet its theorized real-world potential.
To this end, there are a number of approaches being experimented with to achieve this 50 qubit milestone, but two stand above all comers.
In one camp, Google and IBM aim to develop a quantum computer by representing qubits as currents flowing through superconducting wires that are cooled to –273.15 degrees Celsius, or absolute zero. The presence or absence of current stands for a 1 or 0. The benefit of this approach is that these superconducting wires or circuits can be built out of silicon, a material semiconductor companies have decades of experience working with.
The second approach, led by Microsoft, involves trapped ions held in place in a vacuum chamber and manipulated by lasers. The oscillating charges function as qubits, which are then used to process the quantum computer’s operations.
How we will use quantum computers
Okay, putting the theory aside, let’s focus on the real world applications these quantum computers will have on the world and how companies and people engage with it.
Logistical and optimization problems. Among the most immediate and profitable uses for quantum computers will be optimization. For ride-sharing apps, like Uber, what's the fastest route to pick up and drop off as many customers as possible? For e-commerce giants, like Amazon, what's the most cost-effective way to deliver billions of packages during the holiday gift buying rush?
These simple questions involve number crunching hundreds to thousands of variables at once, a feat that modern supercomputers just can't handle; so instead, they compute a small percentage of those variables to help these companies manage their logistical needs in a less than optimal way. But with a quantum computer, it will slice through a mountain of variables without breaking a sweat.
Weather and climate modeling. Similar to the point above, the reason why the weather channel sometimes gets it wrong is because there are too many environmental variables for their supercomputers to process (that and sometimes poor weather data collection). But with a quantum computer, weather scientists can not only forecast near-term weather patterns perfectly, but they can also create more accurate long-term climate assessments to predict the effects of climate change.
Personalized medicine. Decoding your DNA and your unique microbiome is crucial for future doctors to prescribe drugs that are perfectly tailored to your body. While traditional supercomputers have made strides in decoding DNA cost-effectively, the microbiome is far beyond their reach—but not so for future quantum computers.
Quantum computers will also allow Big Pharma to better predict how different molecules react with their drugs, thereby significantly speeding up pharmaceutical development and lowering prices.
Space exploration. The space telescopes of today (and tomorrow) collect enormous amounts of astrological imagery data each day that tracks the movements of trillions of galaxies, stars, planets, and asteroids. Sadly, this is far too much data for today's supercomputers to sift through to make meaningful discoveries on a regular basis. But with a mature quantum computer combined with machine-learning, all this data can finally be processed efficiently, opening the door to the discovery of hundreds to thousands of new planets daily by the early-2030s.
Fundamental sciences. Similar to the points above, the raw computing power these quantum computers enable will allow scientists and engineers to devise new chemicals and materials, as well as better functioning engines and of course, cooler Christmas toys.
Machine learning. Using traditional computers, machine-learning algorithms need a giant amount of curated and labeled examples (big data) to learn new skills. With quantum computing, machine-learning software can begin to learn more like humans, whereby they can pick up new skills using less data, messier data, often with few instructions.
This application is also a topic of excitement among researchers in the artificial intelligence (AI) field, as this improved natural learning capacity could accelerate progress in AI research by decades. More on this in our Future of Artificial Intelligence series.
Encryption. Sadly, this is the application that has most researchers and intelligence agencies nervous. All current encryption services depend on creating passwords that would take a modern supercomputer thousands of years to crack; quantum computers could theoretically rip through these encryption keys in under an hour.
Banking, communication, national security services, the internet itself depends on reliable encryption to function. (Oh, and forget about the bitcoin as well, given its core dependence on encryption.) If these quantum computers work as advertised, all of these industries will be at risk, at worst endangering the entire world economy until we build quantum encryption to keep pace.
Real-time language translation. To end this chapter and this series on a less stressful note, quantum computers will also enable near-perfect, real-time language translation between any two languages, either over a Skype chat or through the use of an audio wearable or implant in your ear.
In 20 years, language will no longer be a barrier to business and everyday interactions. For example, a person who only speaks English can more confidently enter into business relationships with partners in foreign countries where English brands would have otherwise failed to penetrate, and when visiting said foreign countries, this person may even fall in love with a certain somebody who only happens to speak Cantonese.