It is impossible to explain to the average computer user just how powerful a quantum computer can be. In a proposal to Congress for a national quantum initiative, quantum physicist, Christopher Monroe, stated that “the next few years will see quantum computers with over 100 quantum bits, each of which would eclipse the storage capacity of all hard drives in the world.” That’s a pretty powerful computer.
100 qbits (quantum bits) may not seem like a lot, but such a computer would rival, if not surpass, the world’s most powerful supercomputer, the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge Laboratory (developed by IBM). In fact, some say that 2019 is the year we will witness quantum supremacy: the triumph of quantum computers over traditional computers.
Currently, Google possesses the world’s most powerful quantum computer, named Bristlecone, with 72 qbits. And, as they report, “We are cautiously optimistic that quantum supremacy can be achieved with Bristlecone.”
But there is a problem with quantum computers. They are unstable and produce erroneous results because of ‘noise’. Google realizes this but considers it a temporary problem that is not beyond a solution. They believe, as the technology develops, they will be able to ‘filter out’ the noise. Some of this noise comes from temperature while other noise is simply part of the instability that makes up the quantum realm. Ideally, these processors need to be close to 0 Kelvin, but Bristlecone can run at a balmy 3K or -270C, though Google has plans to make such a computer operate closer to room temperatures.
A laptop version of a quantum computer, however, is still a very long way off. For one thing,
Bristlecone processor connected (blue cables) to an analog control server
there are a total of 168 cables connected to Bristlecone. This is a problem because to achieve the degree of power Google is looking for, it will need more cables than would probably fit in a normal room. Before a home quantum computer is possible, processors will need to be improved to reduce the number of cables, but no one believes the task is impossible.
Besides Google, all the big players are investing in quantum computers. IBM, Microsoft, Intel, and others have entered the fray. Some have solutions which seem to be more viable than others. Among these is a quantum computer developed by IonQ, a firm established by the same Christopher Monroe mentioned above. It is primarily funded by the Google’s investment affiliate, GV.
IonQ has a quantum computer that uses ions suspended in a vacuum at room temperature. Lasers take the place of wires. In one test, the IonQ computer had a 73% success rate in solving a complex algorithm on its first attempt. This compared to a 0.2% rate for a conventional computer.
So What Can a Quantum Computer do that a Regular Computer Can’t?
So far, the use of quantum computers has been limited to solving difficult algorithms. The huge potential of quantum computers has not been exploited and some wonder if it ever will be. There’s a good reason for some skepticism because the quantum world is not as cut and dried as the Newtonian world.
That said, if the problem with errors is conquered, we may enter a world of computing that is beyond anything that could be dreamed of. The key to this future is the fact that quantum computers can handle multiple variables at a single time, whereas a conventional computer must solve a single problem at a single point in time. There are a number of key areas that could benefit from such powerful processing. Here are a few.
It should be no wonder that major weather services are interested in quantum computers. They already make use of supercomputers to make their forecasts. However, quantum computers can use the multiple variables involved in forecasting to make more precise local forecasts for a longer period of time. Wouldn’t it be nice to know in advance that the widely scattered thundershowers predicted for next weekend will not disrupt your cookout? Precise forecasts will be available at the neighborhood level and accurate forecasts could be made for weeks or even months in advance. Think of the economic benefits that farmers would achieve in being able to prepare for extreme weather. In January, IBM announced it would soon be implementing such a model.
Economic predictions make use of large amounts of data and a multitude of variables. In addition, in order to make profitable market moves, speed is of the essence. There is nothing new about computerized trading, but quantum computers will be able to predict the most profitable moves more reliably and at a much greater speed. In fact, their implementation may constitute such an unfair advantage that their use in trading may eventually be restricted. However, I’m not sure how such restrictions would be enforced. The problem is that their use may eliminate all risk in trading stocks.
According to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, simply observing a quantum particle will change its state. Thus, using quantum particles for encryption will allow the receiver of an encrypted communication to see if the initial message has been observed (hacked) during transmission, assuming the receiver knows what the initial quantum state was. Theoretically, this would allow for unbreakable encryption. Practically, however, we are still a long way from this, but everyone (governments mainly) is exploring this idea.
Supercomputers are used to create models of molecules that will interact with biological targets. There may be many potential molecules but only a few of these will be categorized as potential drugs. Attempts to discover disease fighting molecules have overwhelmed the power of even the largest supercomputers. However, quantum computers have been shown to be able to deal with larger and more complex molecules. The result may be the discovery of drugs that can treat diseases with more efficiency or treat diseases that have shown resistance to all drugs. Diseases or conditions that have been beyond the realm of current medication may, thus, be cured.
AI and Robotics
Most robots are stupid. We all know they lack common sense. They fail to see that we are joking or being sarcastic. Just talk long enough to your robotic personal assistant and you will find the conversation decidedly lacking. However, this may change dramatically when quantum computers are paired with self-learning, neural network programs. It is possible that such robots may reach such a level of personal interaction that they may pass the Turin Test. In other words, you would not be able to tell if you were talking to a robot or a human being.
Of course, this would mean that you could not see the robot. What about robots that you could see? Robots that are made to physically interact with humans? These, too, would become more realistic, perhaps even frighteningly so. However, that time still seems a long way off. Nonetheless, the use of quantum computers in this regard will lead to noticeable improvements.
If you think weather prediction has a lot of variables, just try simulating reality in all of its dimensions. Yet, anyone who has experienced VR knows it can be convincing, even in its non-quantum reproduction. Quantum computers will give such a boost to VR that reality and virtual reality will nearly merge. You will then be left questioning which is the real world or, perhaps, whether the world you are living in is just a simulation. After all, if we can simulate reality, couldn’t someone else with much more powerful computers simulate our reality?
In the future, we may actually designate the time that quantum supremacy is achieved as the beginning of the Quantum Age. I would say there is a 50-50 chance that that age will begin this year or next year at the latest. If you think technology is changing fast now, just wait a few years.