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.