Quantum computing until recently existed more in the realm of sci-fi than reality. Now, as computing technologies and the demand to solve complex problems accelerate, quantum computing is making its way into the mainstream.
While still in the stage of experimentation and development, for the most part, quantum computing promises to revolutionize the way computing is done and how quickly it does it.
Despite becoming increasingly viable, many people don’t understand what quantum computing is, and how it differs from classical or binary computing.
We spoke with experts in the field of quantum computing to help explain; and get their assessment of how this emerging technology could eventually change the world.
“Quantum computing is an entirely new paradigm that leverages quantum mechanics to process information with quantum bits — qubits,” Rebel Brown, vice president of strategy and marketing for Quantum Computing, a classical and quantum software vendor, told bluehillco.
“Unlike the binary bits of classical computing, which are either on or off, qubits can hold multiple states simultaneously. In this case, data resides in ones and zeros in a multi-dimensional space.” Here, she explained, “a unit of data can be a one and a zero at the same time, depending on what’s happening in the other dimensions that impact that piece of data. This is a simplified explanation of the concept of ‘superposition.’”
Quantum Error Correction
While it might seem magical, quantum computing is very much rooted in the physical world. However, it uses the physical realities of that world to compute complex problems much more quickly and efficiently than classical computing.
“This multi-dimensional space can create probabilistic models of potential outcomes to business optimization problems,” said Brown. “Quantum approaches can also handle larger volumes of data, so they accelerate complex analysis and time-to-results, as well as improve their quality.”
The power of quantum computing has been tricky to harness, notably because of errors that emerge in the process of accessing its data. New techniques in error correction, in particular, have made useable, scalable quantum computing more realistic.
“Unlike traditional bits, qubits are highly prone to errors and are inherently unstable, requiring a wealth of novel systems to create, control, and maintain these entities,” Sebastian Weidt, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Universal Quantum, explained to bluehillco.
“Addressing these errors is key,” he continued. “Fortunately, something called quantum error correction exists, which is a type of algorithm that corrects the errors. To make quantum error correction work and unlock the full potential of these machines, we need a lot — potentially millions — of qubits.”
“Building quantum computers that can reach this scale is, therefore, of paramount importance if you are serious about developing really useful quantum computers,” said Weidt.
Quantum Computing Advantages
Greater speed and efficiency are the primary goals of developing quantum computing as a useable technology. There are limits to the speed, size, and efficiency of traditional computers, and theorists hope that quantum computing will solve some of those limitations.
“Quantum’s multi-dimensional analysis offers a number of advantages over classical computing’s binary data analysis,” noted Brown.
“With classical computing, today’s data volumes limit the performance and problem-solving ability that a complex computation or simulation can achieve. As data grows, the volumes begin to slow the classic performance and eventually overload classical processors,” she maintained.
“Another key difference,” Brown offered, “is that the multi-dimensional space of quantum problem solving allows all potential combinations to be examined simultaneously, providing a range of potential answers that all meet the constraints of the problem.”
Because of its unique characteristics, quantum computing someday might well be positioned to solve some of the most uniquely complex problems of the modern world.
“Our world is already full of problems that are hard for even the fastest computers — from biological problems like gene expression and protein folding, to simulations of quantum behavior in the nuclear arsenal,” David L. Carroll, Ph.D., professor of physics at Wake Forest University, explained to bluehillco.
“We simplify these problems by making unphysical assumptions so that our computers can handle them. That will no longer be necessary in the quantum computing future.
“Ultimately, this means more reliable drug discovery, a safer internet, autonomous vehicles we can trust, utilizing the complexities of swarm dynamics for a more effective defense of our nation, predicting weather patterns more effectively as well as the spread of disease in our planet, and a lot more,” he suggested.
If the technology develops to the point of being mainstream and scalable, quantum computing promises nothing short of a revolution in the computing world.
“The promise of quantum computing is to revolutionize high-performance computing — ‘HPC’ — enabling computations that were not previously considered possible, such as prime decompositions of large numbers, logistical optimization problems, realistic modeling of many-body systems, and more,” Prineha Narang, Ph.D., assistant professor of computational materials science at Harvard University, told bluehillco.
“The availability of a functional large-scale quantum computer will have major implications for our lives, dramatically changing communication security, enabling new molecules, materials and pharmaceuticals, improving traffic and logistics optimization, and improving machine learning and AI.
“Engineers and researchers are ready to embrace the power of quantum in their high-performance computing environments, but the current generation of quantum computing hardware has too many limitations that are obscuring its revolutionary potential,” she explained.
The Future Is (Almost) Now
Quantum computing is still very much in the experimental stages, but it’s starting to look like it could eventually be feasible and practical.
“After decades of experimental and theoretical efforts, we are now seeing the first examples of quantum computational advantage in the areas of quantum computing and quantum simulation,” said Narang. “The opportunity now exists to build and use the most powerful quantum computers and quantum simulators to enable new applications and new science, made accessible and jointly developed by the community.”
There are a variety of applications for quantum computing if the science becomes mainstream; some already known, others still to be discovered.
Weidt pointed out that “the usefulness of the applications of quantum computing scales somewhat with the number of high-quality qubits.”
“As we scale up, quantum computing is poised to radically change the way we approach problems in fields like chemistry. The vast processing power of quantum computers means we can, for example, simulate complex chemical compounds. This has implications for improved drug discovery, better batteries and cleaner fertilizers, he detailed.
“Additional applications can be found in artificial intelligence and machine learning, cybersecurity, financial modeling, logistics optimization, and even weather forecasting and climate change,” he added.
Ultimately, because the technology is so new and continues to evolve, it promises many applications that have not yet been imagined.
“Despite the long list of applications, I think we have barely scratched the surface of understanding the full range of applications of quantum computers,” said Weidt.