Chances are you’ve encountered the phrase quantum computing in the last few years together with a statement that “everything will change” when the technology becomes more accessible.
While that statement isn’t wrong, it’s hard to understand what is possible with quantum computers without first understanding what a quantum computer is. To understand that, we need to get down to the basics of computers.
As you might know, computers are able to understand very basic commands. Since the advent of modern computers binary has been used as a way to automate the switching of transistors from an off state to an on state. Off is a 0, on is a 1 and thus computers can understand commands.
Most technology functions this way and computers are made faster by packing more and more transistors into one place so that more operations can take place at one.
But this solution has a problem as enterprise architect at In2IT, Sumit Kumar explains.
“Over the years we have reduced the size of these transistors to pack more and more computing power into smaller packages. The smallest computer transistors are currently around 14 nanometres. Bad news is there is a physical limit to which we can reduce the size of transistors. Beyond this point, transistors no longer function correctly. The flow of electrons, controlled in a computer by a transistor, can no longer be switched on or off,” explains Kumar.
Enter quantum computing. Rather than relying on a set of transistors to relay an on or off command, quantum computers use something called qbits which can represent multiple values at the same time.
“This can be compared to a light switch – the traditional transistor – which can either be on or off, and a dimmer switch – a quantum particle – which can be on, off, or any value in between,” Kumar explains.
For those that prefer an explanation in video form, check out the video from Wired below.
The potential quantum computing this has for computing is immense. So immense that we don’t quite know what the far-reaching potential of the tech might be.
That having been said, Kumar has some ideas about how quantum computing could help certain sectors.
While computers have helped us understand a great deal more about the human body than we did previously, modern computers are still incredibly limited when it comes to certain aspects of understanding our own bodies.
“It has never been possible to accurately simulate the behaviour of proteins and other molecules to predict progression of a disease, the effectiveness of a medicine and so on. It makes sense to use quantum computers to build quantum simulation models that can far more accurately mimic the behaviours of these proteins and molecules,” explains Kumar.
Quantum computers could run complex simulations to determine how a disease will play out or as Kumar points out above, mimic the behaviour of proteins or even a medicine to see how it would affect a human being.
Quite simply, quantum computing has the potential to completely revolutionise healthcare and help us fight dreaded diseases such as AIDS or cancer.
Encryption is the life-blood of the internet these days but quantum computing could upset that apple-cart in ways we can’t imagine yet.
This is primarily thanks to the fluidity with which quantum computers can parse information. While it might take aeons for you laptop to crack a password, quantum computers could trivialise password encryption.
“Some engineers even predict that within the next twenty or so years sufficiently large quantum computers will be built to break essentially all public key schemes currently in use. Historically, it has taken almost two decades to deploy our modern public key cryptography infrastructure. Therefore, regardless of whether we can estimate the exact time of the arrival of the quantum computing era, we must begin now to prepare our information security systems to be able to resist quantum computing,” the National Institute of Standards and Technology wrote in 2017.
However, Kumar argues that this goes both ways and we might see even more robust encryption when quantum computers are widespread.
“In the world of quantum, encryption can be made so complex that it is, for all intents and purposes, unbreakable. Instead of using traditional encryption keys, quantum computers will use quantum encryption keys. Banks in particular are exploring the potential for quantum encryption, to secure electronic devices as well as information sharing and transactions,” the architect explains.
The new, or rather next, internet
A new internet sounds like something from HBO’s Silicon Valley but Kumar says that the way information is relayed between places could change immensely.
“Since quantum identities or particles can exist at multiple points in space and time, they can be manipulated in one place and the same particle, existing in another location, will reflect the manipulation. It sounds confusing right? Let’s assume that these subatomic particles were a person. In quantum world, if a person becomes angry or happy it can induce the same behaviour in another person sitting maybe 1000 KM away, and this can happen without any contact or exchange of information,” explains Kumar.
A key thing to understand is that a quantum computer won’t replace your existing computer, at least not yet. Your computer is likely still better for tasks like watching YouTube and editing documents but quantum computing could change the visit to the doctor’s office and perhaps ensure that things like data breaches happen less frequently.