Inside Quantum Computing

Quantum computing is upon us; we must prepare for both risks and rewards.

What is quantum computing and why is it significant?

Quantum computing is a concept that is intricately linked to the theory of quantum physics, which came into existence through a series of experiments (the most notable of which is known as the ‘’Double Slit Experiment’’), that took place in the early 19th century. Later on, in the beginning of the 20th century, more scientists probed the findings of the first studies, including none other but Albert Einstein, and eventually untangled them, shaping what is formally known as the theory of quantum physics today.

In turn, quantum computing involves the study and development of computational systems (quantum computers) based on quantum-mechanical physics, to perform data processing operations. Whereas most of today’s computers are based on transistors, futuristic quantum computers would work very differently in theory – using the extraordinary behaviours of subatomic particles, namely the superposition and entanglement of atoms and electrons.

For example, a quantum computer could, unlike today’s fastest supercomputer, process an infinite number of tasks simultaneously. Needless to say, the theoretical potential of this concept is tremendous. This possibility has fascinated physicists, researchers and tech enthusiasts ever since the emergence of quantum theory. The rewards for those who put the astounding discoveries of quantum physics into practice, would be unquantifiable. 

Sounds good, where can I get a quantum computer?

Although quantum computing theory has been in existence for decades, its practical applications are still in their infancy. Without going into too much technical detail, we can say that the conditions for building a functional quantum computer are highly volatile and can only be created in a strictly controlled, or a lab environment, in order to eliminate what is known as quantum decoherence. In other words, the quantum mechanism has to be fully isolated from environmental interference in order to work in the way we know it can. The biggest obstacle to the successful development of an actual QC today is still the fact that qubits, or quantum bits (the most basic units of quantum information, similar to classic binary bits in ordinary computers) are highly sensitive to noise, unstable and thus, prone to error. For qubits to work the way they should, both superposition and entanglement need to occur.

A simplified quantum computer

The most complete universal quantum computer that exists today is an abstract model of what an actual quantum machine would be like and it is known as a Quantum Turing Machine (QTM). The research labs at QuTech, a Dutch research institute that is part of TU Delft, are responsible for some of the world’s most advanced work on quantum computing to-date, including the discovery of unique quasiparticles in 2012, which can help keep qubits stable.

Real-world applications of quantum computing

Once humanity gets closer to being able to create a real-world quantum computer, there will be an endless wealth of areas where we can take advantage of its ultrafast processing ability: physics, medicine, biotechnology, mathematics, cryptanalysis, chemistry, pharmaceuticals, the materials industry, to name a few. QCs could solve complex optimisation challenges, advance efforts in machine learning, help fight disease and discover new drugs, among other real-world applications that haven’t been conceived yet.

The flipside

There are, of course, risks that come with the ability to quickly outsmart virtually any computer algorithm or system – mainly in the shape of cyber security at the software level, which could easily be dismantled by a quantum program. Today’s encryption techniques wouldn’t stand a chance if attacked by a machine with quantum superpowers.

The moment we start to see lottery wins that are happening a bit too often, or cyber bank heists, is the moment we should start getting worried about quantum computers entering the mainstream and being used for sinister purposes.

Advances in quantum computing

Every year quantum computing comes up as a candidate for the MIT Breakthrough Technologies list but due to its current phase of development it keeps getting passed up. Nevertheless, increased corporate funding in the past few years, including financing from Google, Microsoft, Intel, and IBM, has led to rapid advances in the development of this futuristic tech and the latest predictions say that the first working models will be a reality within 4-5 years. In late 2017 IBM announced they have built a 50-qubit system -- a well-known threshold that today’s top supercomputers can’t surpass. Quantum computing is upon us and we must prepare.

Copywriter: Ina Danova

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