With the emergence of revolutionary concepts and technologies such as Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud Computing and Autonomous Systems, the solutions implemented both in industry and in our homes are no longer able to keep up with the sheer volume of data and processing power required to handle it.
One of the emerging technologies that tries to give a practical solution to this ever-growing problem is quantum computing.
Quantum computing was born from an intersection of three different fields: computer science, mathematics and physics. It represents the application of previously known facts and methodologies in conjunction with the realm of quantum physics leading to a new paradigm-changing technology.
What is quantum computing?
The principles of quantum computing are based on the use of different mechanisms to achieve computational coherence. Instead of using “regular” bits, quantum computers perform their calculations using something called qubits. The main difference between these two approaches is the number of possible attainable states (by states I mean the possible values that each ‘bit’ can take). In normal computers that use bits, the possible states are either 1 or 0. Quantum computers take advantage of several properties found in quantum mechanics. The most relevant here is the property called superposition. Superposition works on the assumption that all possible states are achievable and possible (with a certain probability) and that they all exist at the same time. Making an analogy to regular bits, both 1 and 0 states are possible, as well as an infinite number of states between those two values. Quantum computers work under a superposition paradigm. All the possible values exist at all times but, when observed or measured, these states collapse into one of the two main values (1 or 0). This is what Erwin Schrödinger tried to explain with his famous “cat in a box” paradox.
Why quantum computers might be the future
Quantum computers are to computers what computers were to abacuses. This is a bold statement, but nonetheless true to some extent. Being able to use superposition make this type of computer magnitudes of times faster and more capable than regular supercomputers. Some early data suggests that, for example, passwords or encryption approaches that were once deemed unbreakable could be deciphered by quantum computers in mere minutes; this all comes down to the number of logical operations a computer of this kind can do. Since they compute every possible state at the same time, it’s almost like always having the answer to a problem right away. Of course this is an “arms race” and quantum cryptography will seek to change the lock faster than you can change the key.
Downsides of quantum computers
For simpler problems, computers (or even supercomputers for that matter) will retain their place. Despite the sheer amount of power a quantum computer provides, for problems that do not require the computational workload that justify their use, they will be the proverbial ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’. As an example, a quantum computer will never replace our personal laptops to browse the internet. The workload of the task is so miniscule that the investment would not justify the return. For now, quantum computers will remain in the realm of research grade projects and super-heavy computing tasks such as weather forecasting. Of course we should consider Cloud-like approaches where quantum-computing-as-a-service could enable anybody to access the computational power at a fraction of the cost.
In summary, quantum computing remains some way off for consumers; they are expensive, bulky and require a lot of specialist knowledge to operate. Having said that, I remain optimistic, and think that one day quantum computers will replace supercomputers as the main processing force driving innovation and innovative service wraps could provide access to them at a fraction of the price. But are we prepared for the end of Moore’s Law and the application of Neven’s Law? This is a broader question related to ethics and anthropology as much as it does computer science. Choose favourite dystopian computer based film franchise and discuss!
I’d love to hear your feedback on this area, or if you have any experience or consideration of it. Get in touch!