The opposable thumb is an indispensable result of human evolution. Though its migration down the side of the palm likely took millennia, the thumb completely transformed our ability to interact with the physical world – and most probably our fate in the process.
Since its inception, modern computing too has evolved, although its evolution is the intentional product of human innovation rather than natural selection. The invention of microchips, in particular, enabled unprecedented access to pocket-sized computers the world over. Despite the progress, however, the fundamental principles of computing are the same as they always have been. True binary has been the basis for everything, from Candy Crush to algorithmic trading – until now.
Computing is about to change, and the opposable thumb is perhaps the best corollary for the transformation. Through the seemingly esoteric principles of quantum mechanics, computers are about to become exponentially more powerful.
A Shor(t) History
In 1918, German physicist Max Planck was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for his work on blackbody radiation. By demonstrating that energy could exhibit the characteristics of physical matter, he radically changed our understanding of the physical world. Planck’s theory asserts that particle-like components make up radiant energy. Recognition of these components, coined quanta, inaugurated the field of quantum mechanics.
Six decades later, in 1980, scientist Paul Benioff noted that computers could potentially operate under, and benefit from, the principles of quantum mechanics. It took another 14 years for mathematician Peter Shor to create an algorithm that used quantum principles, but the results were spectacular. In minutes, Shor’s algorithm could perform tasks that would take aeons for conventional computers to manage. In 2001, an IBM research team was able to demonstrate Shor’s algorithm for the first time when a quantum computer comprised of molecules pulsed with electromagnetic waves.
After another decade of advances in circuitry and processing architecture, the first commercial quantum computer system became available in 2011, albeit with a price tag of $10 million.
The promise of quantum computing has an accompanying market all its own, and the hype is fuelling progress across geographies and sectors. When the technology will fully deliver on its promise to revolutionise computing, however, remains speculation. That said, the pace of innovation is accelerating, and the advances are tantalising.
The promise of quantum computing has an accompanying market all its own, and the hype is fuelling progress across geographies and sectors. When the technology will fully deliver on its promise to revolutionise computing, however, remains speculation.
A Wave of Development
Unlike conventional computers where efficacy is primarily the result of memory size and processing power, quantum computers deliver remarkable results by “thinking” differently. Contemporary computers operate using data bits in either a 0 or 1 state – binary. Quantum computers sidestep this limitation by encoding information in quantum bits, known as qubits, that can be in a 0 or 1 state simultaneously. This superposition could potentially allow the quantum computers of the future to outpace today’s supercomputers by a magnitude of millions.
Qubits and their control devices consist of atoms, ions, photons or electrons and are the components of a quantum computer’s brain. The more qubits in a quantum computer, the more complex the problems it can solve. In just the past three years, the number of qubits typically used in quantum computing has multiplied by a factor five, but serious challenges remain. The superconducting circuitry used to control the quantum computer’s particle processes must be kept extremely cold through large cryogenic elements. Currently, operation at room temperature is prohibitively diminished or impossible.
However, Canadian start-up company D-Wave Systems has made significant strides in performance since 2007, and in 2013 broke the record for the amount of time a qubit could operate at room temperature, at 39 minutes.
More recent innovations in quantum computing sound like science fiction but are bringing the prospect of a general-purpose quantum computer for the consumer marketplace even closer to reality. The potential to create qubits from materials that remain stable at room temperature, such as nanodiamonds, could mean a quantum leap for computing as significant as opposable thumbs.
The Quantum Computing Era
Because of the way they address data, quantum computers are not only capable of performing calculations quicker than conventional computers, but they are also able to simulate complex systems involving interacting particles. A quantum computer’s advanced ability to incorporate likely and unlikely scenarios rather than crunching every single number might translate to an immense reduction in time spent computing. Even just a few dozen interacting particles would take a non-quantum computer thousands of years to simulate. Quantum computing’s transformative potential doesn’t end there; as valuable as time is, life is even more precious, and the quantum computer was seemingly built for the type of chemistry that can save both.
A quantum computer’s advanced ability to incorporate likely and unlikely scenarios rather than crunching every single number might translate to an immense reduction in time spent computing.
In 2018, pharmaceutical manufacturer Roche’s Pharma Research and Early Development (pRED) division set up a task force to monitor quantum computing progress and work in collaboration with the field to develop early applications. Not only could quantum computers save biomedical companies billions in R&D, but there is also the chance that quantum computing could lead to markedly more effective drugs, as well as the eradication of humanity’s deadliest diseases.
Big Pharma is not alone in their quantum computing investment. Lockheed Martin has been using a D-Wave computer since 2014 to test highly complex jet software beyond the capabilities of conventional computers. From battery technology to the ability to accurately predict weather systems, quantum computers stand to make travel safer and more efficient and might also enable us to curtail the effects of environmental damage and severe weather events.
Unravelling the mysteries of space and the intricacies of space travel is perhaps the most obvious application for a computer system that operates using some of physics’ most abstract concepts. However, the power of quantum computing will likely first be used to navigate the vastness of big data on earth.
Hyper-personalised advertising and more powerful artificial intelligence have the potential to supercharge marketing, stimulating spending and GDP by offering consumers uniquely tailored products. For manufacturers, machine-learning algorithms could function using fewer learning scenarios, making their mastery of complex tasks unprecedentedly quick. Despite the potential benefit to the private sector, however, the greatest efforts to harness the power of quantum computing may, in fact, be public.
Some governments are betting on the edge that quantum computing could give them when it comes to economics and security. The United States, China and the European Union are investing billions in a technology race suitable for the 21st century. In the future, governments themselves could be a product of quantum computing as the ability to understand electorates provides the next generation of world leaders an advantage never before enjoyed in human history.
Transformative applied quantum computing scenarios are still a minimum of 15 years away – and likely longer – but they seem inevitable. Whether the broad benefits of the quantum computer will outweigh any potential harm or overreach by those who control them remains a point of speculation for the foreseeable future, but with an unprecedented ability for complex modelling, it might just be the quantum computer itself that gives us our only realistic glimpse into our future with it.