What does quantum computing really mean for the world?
Quantum computing has recently become a hot topic. It’s also gained more attention this year as the 2022 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to three scientists (Alain Aspect, John Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger) working in the field. What’s even more exciting is that it’s not just academic research, as quantum computing is starting to find real-world applications.
But can your average Joe even begin to understand such a complex scientific subject? Strap yourselves in and get ready for the quantum science breakdown.
What is quantum mechanics?
Richard Feynman, Another Nobel laureate physicist, made the statement, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” This may not be a very helpful starting point, but it does go some way to explaining the mysterious nature of quantum physics and how it’s largely based on probabilities.
Quantum mechanics is at the heart of many modern technologies. It operates on the nanoscopic level of atoms and subatomic particles and the ways they behave. In particular, it considers the probabilities of objects being in different locations without any certainty of where they actually are.
We learned about classical physics in the 18th and 19th centuries from the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, which is all about forces on a macroscopic level. When quantum mechanics first came around at the turn of the 20th century, it addressed scientific problems that were still left unanswered.
Understanding the behavior of nanoparticles is not easy, but these are some of the key concepts in focus:
- Quantum entanglement – in a quantum state, particles in a group are all mathematically related and cannot be described independently from the other particles.
- Quantum superposition – two quantum waves can be combined to form a new quantum state.
- Quantum tunneling – quantum waves can pass through barriers and still function on the other side, though it may be in a lessened form.
Quantum mechanics mainly looks at waves, but these can often be described as particles.
Ever heard of Schrodinger’s cat? This is the idea that if there is the possibility a box may contain a cat, then before you open the box to check, it both contains and doesn’t contain a cat at the same time. Quantum technology is based on this paradox. Erwin Schrodinger was a quantum physicist around the same time as Albert Einstein.
Since the time of the quantum heavyweights like Einstein, computers and IT have played a much larger role in the real world. This brings us to quantum computing, which harnesses the power of quantum mechanics to bring us computers that are vastly superior to the average desktop.
In 1994, a quantum algorithm was used to break through RSA encryption, widely used for secure data transmission. Then in 1998, the first quantum computer was created.
Ordinary computers can represent information in 0 or 1 bits. Quantum computers have qubits, which can also be 0 and 1, but due to superposition, they can be in a quantum state of 0 and 1 at the same time. The probability of the outcome depends on the quantum state of the qubit directly before measurement.
The result is that quantum computers have a much higher capacity and are able to run multidimensional quantic algorithms.
A quantum computer with just 10 qubits could store 1.024 values, while it would take a classical computer with 16,000 bits to describe this configuration. But if the quantum computer has 500 qubits, the bits required by a classical computer would exceed the number of atoms in the known universe.
Because qubits can store multiple values, they can perform some tasks much faster than has ever been possible before, which is also known as the quantum advantage. This ability to perform to a degree not possible by classical computers is referred to as quantum supremacy — a milestone first achieved in 2019 by Sycamore, Google’s quantum processor with 54 qubits.
So we know that this technology has abilities that are vastly superior to the computers we are more familiar with. They are not the same as supercomputers, which are classical computers that operate by the same principles but with much greater processing power. Quantum computers can potentially exceed the computing power of supercomputers, but they are not very practical.
The processors of quantum computers are more or less the same size as those of classical computers, but they need to be kept at a temperature of -196.1°C, which calls for a large cooling system. This is achieved using superfluids that create superconductors. However, this temperature limitation is an engineering challenge that can be overcome in the future.
There is only a limited number of quantum computers in the world — 11 in 2018, although no one can be sure how many may be used within classified government programs.
This brings us to our next question. We know that scientists just love this exciting and potentially powerful technology. But what does it mean for all of us non-science lay people? Is anyone actually able to do anything with quantum computing?
So we know there’s a great deal of scientific research into the development of quantum tech. This is particularly important in areas like chemical and biological engineering, which could have an enormous impact on medicine, among other fields.
When it was discovered that quantum computers could potentially break through advanced encryption systems, governments around the world paid close attention. Leading global powers have invested in quantum programs that may be needed either to encrypt high-level defense systems or to decrypt those of their enemies. So information about these programs is often classified.
Finance and financial services are industries that could reap some of those quantum benefits for the extra speed and computational power that can be attained. This could be used for financial modeling or the pricing of complex assets. JP Morgan Chase is investing in Microsoft’s Quantum Network, while Goldman Sachs is looking to a future in quantum algorithms.
Engineering problems in various industries could be solved by quantum computing. These include a process for producing ammonia fertilizer organically, as the current process contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Another green quantum solution is improving solar technology, and British software company Phasecraft is working with Bristol University to increase the efficiency of solar cells and batteries.
Mercedes-Benz has teamed up with IBM to see what quantum technology can bring to electric cars, such as making more efficient battery systems.
In this article, we’ve only touched on the infinitely complex subject of quantum computing. But this should be enough to show that this nascent technology will be a large part of our future.
We’re still a long way from using quantum tech in our everyday lives, but there is increasing interest in the capabilities that are exponentially superior to our current forms of computing. It’s coming soon, so get ready for the quantum revolution.