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Quantum Leap? – Could quantum computing build a better world?

Today we are exploring the infinitesimally smaller elements of the universe and using neutrons and protons and the whole family of subatomic particles to build our most powerful ON-OFF switching system yet.

Adrian Bridgwater

Just when you thought we probably had enough computing power to do anything we wanted, the technology industry is about to reinvent itself all over again. The next age of IT will be driven by what we call quantum computing. Don’t panic: it’s actually just an extension of the same principles of particle physics that have allowed us to create almost all computing devices.

Essentially, it all comes down to an ON-OFF switch. To put it in perspective, let’s recap with a brief history of computing.

After the mainframe and the ‘mini’ computer era of the sixties, we raced through the PC revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. The microprocessor ‘chip’ got faster, more powerful and, crucially, thinner. Eventually, microprocessors got so thin that we started building multi-core architectures to run concurrent computations and this approach has served us well since the turn of the millennium.

After that, we invented cloud computing – and that pretty much brings us up to date. Except that it doesn’t. We’re still mostly doing what we did in 1946 when the ENIAC computer was built using big old clunky unreliable vacuum tube ‘valves’ and diodes for brainpower. After valves, we moved to more reliable electronic transistors and then to micro-miniature silicon switches.

Fundamentally though, we were still just constructing a labyrinth of ON-OFF switches, albeit it with an overriding emphasis on miniaturisation and reliability.

Today we are exploring the infinitesimally smaller elements of the universe and using neutrons and protons and the whole family of subatomic particles to build our most powerful ON-OFF switching system yet. This is where quantum theory and quantum computing start to take over.

The problem is that however smart you think your PC is, your machine is essentially still a comparatively ‘sequential’ animal. It mostly does one thing after another with a bit of parallel showing off where it can. When Microsoft word allows you to type while showing spellchecker errors at the same time, this is an example of parallelism.

To make the leap to the next age of computing, we will need to perform thousands upon thousands of computations at once.

Quantum computing is often likened to the neural networks of the brain. With roughly 100 billion neurons and trillions of synaptic connections, the brain’s computing capacity far outstrips the power of any computer that has ever been built. The quantum, neural, cognitive and almost human machines of the near future, are capable of this kind of power.

Quantum theory is hard to grasp, but if you have to explain it in an elevator or at a dinner party then try this version.

Traditional computers are digital: they are based on the binary digits 1 and 0 (yes, essentially another ON and OFF switch). Binary technology is built upon a foundation of a computing device being able to determine the difference between those two values, 1 or 0.

In quantum theory, the value (or state) of the number can also be either 1 or 0, but it can also be any and all the points in between 1 and 0 – so this is an ON-OFF switch with attitude. This ability to define what we call a ‘superposition’ means that quantum computers are not limited to two states, meaning their potential power is massively increased.

Caption: Tuning up quantum power D-Wave Larry Goldstein shows that it all comes down to nuts and bolts

Digital computers store data in bits; quantum computers store data in qubits. Digging deeper we find “quantum tunnelling” (a state where information travels between qubits without that information actually having to be anywhere in between) and “quantum entanglement” (a state where what happens to one qubit impacts and affects another qubit in some other place). Suddenly it’s like an intelligent hyper-connected network of ON-OFF switches exists that cares about what its neighbours are doing.

The superposition characteristics of qubits gives us the ability to do millions of things (calculations) at the same time, so computers get a massive boost in terms of their parallelism. In technical terms we refer to FLOPS, or FLoating-point calculation Operations Per Second to express computing power. Traditional computers are measured in gigaflops (billions), quantum computers are measured in teraflops (trillions) and petaflops (quadrillions). As of 2016 we have not had to name computing speed beyond this point.

So if this is some attempt to explain quantum computing, have we stepped back to ask why do we need this kind of power in the first place? Technologists agree that our current computing model is unsustainable. What they mean is, in terms of our ability to be able to compute the huge size and number of algorithms that we need today, modern machines fail to make the grade.

With the quantum computer, we will be able, in theory, to solve many of humanity’s most complex problems. The planet’s biggest challenges are typically convoluted by massive numbers of independent variables that far outstrip the complexity of even the most multifaceted stock-market transactions. Where we look to next is a cure for cancer, AIDS and the more virulent strains of malaria. That kind of intelligence is arguably now within our reach.

Microsoft and Intel have already invested heavily in quantum computing and have established dedicated divisions to oversee its development. Google has invested in Canadian quantum specialist D-Wave Systems to control its self-driving cars. In the near future we will use quantum computing for new-age materials development, genomic analysis, computer security cryptography and interplanetary research. NASA and the CIA have already backed many of these developments.

Caption: Cold heart? Inside the quantum machine it is 10 millikelvin, a temperature 100 times colder than interstellar space

When our existing contemporary computers try to solve problems, they go through possible solutions one by one. D-Wave’s quantum machine is capable of using quantum theory to lay down all possible solutions at once (in a state of superposition if you like) so that they can all be compared concurrently. Hence a much faster and more efficient route to problem solving is achieved.

Why don’t we just build lots more quantum computers now? First, quantum processors are extremely expensive to build and require a special low magnetic environment to run in. Second, their huge computation power produces so much heat that they have to be housed in an environment chilled to 10 millikelvin, a temperature 100 times colder than interstellar space. Essentially, the quantum computer exists in the coldest place in the known universe.

In reality, nobody is going to own a quantum computer. But there will a time, soon, when we are able to tap into its power via cloud-based services in much the same way that we use web-driven IT power today. The next stage comes down to how we as humans use this neural-like brainpower for the good of our world.

Given the ‘brief history of computing’ where we began, and given the progression to this new level of quantum power that we have now recognised here, it becomes hard to imagine what could happen to our IT stacks over the next decade. That kind of futurism and disruptive transformation will be on the agenda at the World Government Summit in the UAE in 2016.

How many of the participants will focus on the immediate future and look to apply already available technologies, systems and practices — and how many will look to apply that which is still in a somewhat more nascent form of its evolution?

Particle physics hasn’t changed, it’s just that our ON-OFF switches have become quantum powerful. The summit will be a great time to gauge where the real forward thinkers are, and see if their switches are lit up.