Q is for Quantum Computing
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Quantum computers are machines that are orders of magnitude more powerful than any traditional computer currently available.
The most powerful supercomputer on Earth — at the time of writing, this is Frontier, which became operational in 2022 — can perform 1.102 quintillion operations per second. To put that in perspective, 1 quintillion is one billion billion. Or one million million millions.
Quantum computers are exponentially faster and more powerful than this, and can perform calculations and handle problems no other computer on Earth — including Frontier — is capable of dealing with.
Quantum computers are so powerful because they work in a fundamentally different way to traditional computers.
Traditional computers are binary. They process information in strings of ones and zeroes represented as electrical pulses — what we know as bits.
Quantum computers, on the other hand, process information using qubits. These are subatomic particles, like protons or electrons.
Qubits have four key advantages over bits:
- They can exist in multiple states at once.
This is known as superposition. In extremely basic terms, where a bit can be either a 1 or a 0, a qubit can be both at the same time. This enables quantum computers to look into the validity of several potential solutions at once. By contrast, traditional computers can only evaluate one solution at a time.
- One qubit’s state can be correlated to another qubit’s state, even when the two are a huge distance apart.
This is known as entanglement, and it enables quantum computers to perform complex calculations in parallel. Here again, this is something traditional computers are incapable of doing.
- They can pass through barriers that would block bits.
This means quantum computers can explore potential solutions which a traditional computer would be physically incapable of accessing
- Qubits can interfere with each other.
While this sounds like a bad thing, it’s actually beneficial, because quantum algorithms can exploit the interferences to increase the probability of reaching the correct answer and lower the probability of reaching the wrong answer. In other words, interference helps quantum computers be more accurate than traditional computers.
Richard Feynman, Paul Benioff, and Yuri Manin first proposed the idea of quantum computing in the early 1980s, and Peter Shor built the first quantum algorithm in 1994. But the biggest advances happened in the 2010s, thanks to a perfect storm of increased investment, better technology, and greater technical understanding.
IBM launched the world’s first commercial quantum computer — the Q System One — in January 2019. And in October 2019, Google announced they’d achieved quantum supremacy. Their quantum computer Sycamore solved a mathematical problem it would take a traditional computer 10,000 years to solve in three minutes and twenty seconds.
While quantum computing has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past decade, it’s still a very young field, and there are several challenges that need to be overcome for the technology to become reliably useful in everyday settings.
The biggest issue is that quantum computers are extremely sensitive to their environment, and need to be stored in specialized refrigerators at near-absolute zero (absolute zero is −459.67°F).
86% of all investment in quantum computing comes from only 4 countries. The US is the single biggest investor in quantum computing, followed by the UK, Canada, and China.
Want to know more?
While quantum computing has the potential to be transformational, there’s also, somewhat inevitably, a lot of hype surrounding the technology. This article aims to separate the truth from the hype, and argues that managing expectations is going to be critical for the technology to achieve its potential.
The sheer power of quantum computers creates several ethical risks. Cybersecurity experts are particularly worried, as they claim quantum computers would make short work of even the most advanced digital security techniques. There’s also the risk it could escalate political tensions among countries that are treating the field as an arms race. This article provides a good overview of these risks and the possible way forward.
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