There are a lot of buzzwords thrown around nowadays, promising to change or revolutionize the world.
Quantum computing is one of them.
There is, no doubt, a reason such tech mammoths as IBM, Microsoft and Google have been racing for the title of the creator of the most powerful quantum computers. In fact, Google has already made the claim that it has achieved quantum supremacy, where the quantum computer of their creation performed better than the traditional computers.
But what is quantum computing, really, and how does one achieve quantum supremacy? Let’s take a step back and understand the core components of quantum computing first.
In order to understand how quantum computers work, it’s also important to know how regular, traditional computers operate to draw a comparison. A regular computer relies on “bits” to process information. The bits are normally represented as 0’s and 1’s and can only take one value at a time — never both at once. An easy way to think about this is, any website, folder, application on a device is, at the core, comprised of millions of 0’s and 1’s, or “bits.”
While this system does function properly when it comes to computers as we know them today, the truth is, it are not reflective of the real world: the world is not binary, it’s not as simple as a traditional computer may see it. The real world is not always clearly defined; instead, it’s more uncertain than what computers’ simplifications that allow them to process information.
And this is where quantum computing comes in.
While traditional computers operate on bits, quantum computers rely on quantum bits, or “qubits.” Instead of taking on the value of 0 or 1, qubits have the capacity to take on two or more values at a time — a phenomenon known as “superposition.” This quality is what makes quantum computers so powerful — it allows computers to look past the simplified models they operate on and prepare to deal with the uncertainty of the real world.
An example that Wired uses to demonstrate the efficiency of quantum computers is a maze. A traditional computer tests every possible outcome to reach the solution of the maze, one by one, eliminating the possibilities until the ultimate solution is reached. Quantum computers, however, consider all the paths at once, without the need to try each one sequentially.
Yes, quantum computers will be infinitely faster and more efficient in solving problems and finding solutions. There is no question that they will outperform traditional computers on such axes as speed and productivity. But there is more to the opportunities that quantum computers unlock — things that we never thought possible before.
One of the key promises quantum computers offer is the faster growth and development of artificial intelligence. The quality of the outputs from AI — and machine learning specifically — depends on the quality of the data sets used to train the models. The smaller the data set, the lower the accuracy of predictions made by the AI algorithms. However, with the power of quantum computing and the ability of generating models, it’s possible to increase the dataset and include more variety to the type of content — be it textual or visual — allowing for more accurate predictions and analyses. This breakthrough is especially important in medicine, making it possible to replicate prototypes of diseased cells, MRI scans, and other types of molecules to enlarge datasets and train models based on “real” and reliable data.
Another key application — and a threat, in some capacity — is cryptography and security. Today, breaking down complex series of numbers and character sequences is a key barrier in the encryption process. Traditional computers require a lot of resources including time, financial means and energy to break sophisticated encryption. But with quantum computing, breaking down even the most complex encryptions won’t be a difficult task anymore; if anything, it’s more of a risk to be considered for the future.
To counteract the risk that quantum computing poses to security, the solution is quantum encryption. Quantum cryptography, or quantum key distribution (QKD), usesa series of photons to transmit data from one location to another. The endpoints use measurements of the properties of a fraction of the photons in order to determine the key and establish that the key is safe to use. The catch here is, if a third party attempts to copy the photons, the photons change their state, which the two key parties can detect. This makes quantum encryption virtually unbreakable.
When it comes to the question of how close we are to achieving quantum supremacy, the answer is, it’s hard to tell. Quantum computers will not be a piece of technology to be used day-to-day by regular users, though — the state of qubits is extremely delicate and can be disrupted with the smallest interference. When fully functional, quantum computers will most likely be used by business and academic units in the future.
With all the promises that quantum computers make, there is still time to make them a reality. Despite the claims like Google’s that say quantum supremacy is within our reach, there is still more work to be done to tap into the real potential that quantum computing offers.
We are at the dawn of a new era!