Quantum computing has the potential to be a really exciting development in computing and is starting to get a lot of hype – but what does it actually mean to have a quantum computer (QC)?
When things get small, quantum-level small, physics starts to get strange. Classical computers in your laptop, cellphone, and smart fridge are built out of code called bits, all of which can be either a 0 or 1. Think of it like a light switch – your light is either on or off. At a quantum level, that light switch becomes more like a dimmer switch, where the bit exists in a superposition of zero and one and can act like both at once.
In classical computers you can only tell them one thing at a time, and they can only do one step at a time. But because quantum computers can exist in this superposition, more ideas can be tested at once. This has the potential to make solving big complex problems a lot faster! We’re talking analysing huge data sets, modelling big scientific problems, and getting much smarter computers.
When are we going to see this quantum revolution?
Right now there are some technical problems when we try to build quantum computers. Currently the quantum bits, or qubits, have to be kept really cold (around absolute 0) because when they heat up, the atoms being used move around too much and introduce a lot of noise to the signal, meaning it’s not really practical to have one in your phone yet. It’s also physically difficult to make all the atoms line up in quantum computers. Right now, the commercial quantum computer available, the IBM Q System One, is 20 qubits – and Google’s is 72 qubits. Even as we’re using them now, as part of an integrated system within classical computers – that’s not huge.
We don’t expect quantum computers to replace classical computers for decades, and maybe not ever. Realistically, if we don’t get QC up to room temperature, you’re not going to have one in your bionic arm or mobile phone and that’s a pretty big barrier right now. There’s a lot of potential developments in the field, but when it comes to having a QC in your home or business it’s more “wait and see” than “definitely”.
What do we expect to see?
With the current degree of error we see in quantum computers, there’s likely to be some benefits in the next ten years or so, especially in fields such as cybersecurity, autonomous vehicles, or scientific research. Think about areas that already use supercomputers – these are fields that already have the funding and spaces appropriate to house quantum computers, or the ability and connections to leverage the cloud to use QC.
Any areas that are computationally heavy which would benefit from the way QC solve problems would do well to keep an eye on this space – Volkswagen has announced plans to use quantum computing to optimise traffic management systems, and BioGen (in a collaboration with Accenture and 1qbit) have developed a quantum computing-based application to speed up drug discovery. These investments represent the tip of the iceberg of potential but the limitations of the currently existing physical hardware in the QC space should be kept in mind when considering QC investments.
Another consideration for quantum computing in the near future is the cybersecurity implications. Unfortunately, the big problems that quantum computers might be better at solving include decrypting data and hacking the matrix. Meaning that as soon as quantum computers manager this, the foundations of what our cyber security is based on are compromised.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology in the USA has predicted that the RSA algorithm, a key part of cybersecurity, will be broken within 7-10 years, and other experts predict this will happen within 3-5 years.
Therefore one of the fields that is getting a lot of interest right now is quantum-safe cryptography, which is a way of encoding data – data which can include messages, health records, bank accounts, etc – in a way that is harder for quantum computers to hack.
While QC is still a swiftly-developing field with limited current applications, it is a key area to watch for developments. This is both because of the significant implications QC has for solving classical cryptography and because it will be one of the greatest “new” technology revenue opportunities to emerge over the next decade.