The quantum computing hype is growing. Companies are battling it out to be the first to create a working quantum computer. But what is quantum computing, and why should we care?
What is it?
Quantum computing is heralded as the future of computing. Quantum computing utilises subatomic particles. They are able to exist in more than one state at once. Think Schrodinger’s cat. Current computers operate on a binary system; every bit of information exists either as 1 or 0. By combining enough bits in a computer chip, you can calculate numbers of any size.
In quantum computing, qubits (quantum bits) can store infinite amounts of information. They are not constrained to 1 or 0, but can exist as a mixture of both. A common way to show differences between quantum and current computing is to use the image of a sphere; there is a pole on the top and one on the bottom. These represent 1 and 0. A classic bit is at either pole, but a qubit can exist anywhere on the surface of the sphere.
Quantum computers also have another benefit; entanglement. Boiled (right) down, this means that rather than doing calculations one after the other, it can do simultaneous calculations.
Do any exist?
There are, in fact, some experimental quantum prototypes out there. For example, those created by IBM, Microsoft and Google. These early models are not yet capable of overtaking traditional computing power. Current models contain less than two dozen qubits per chip. Roughly 50 per chip is the recommended amount needed to meet the theorised potential.
IBM last year created a 50-qubit chip; yet, it was too unstable and could only hold the quantum microstate for 90 seconds. While this is a record, it is not yet at the state needed for practical application. In a similar vein, Google recently touted a 72-qubit chip, but have not managed to create stable conditions for operation.
What is it used for?
The advancement of quantum computing poses a significant threat to current security technology. For example, public key cryptography used in banks. A sustained hack could break through most public key encryption. This is because quantum computing is infinitely more powerful, and much faster, than traditional technologies. This tech could be weaponised for use in cyber warfare – and could cripple states.
Quantum computing also allows scientists to model chemical reactions. This means being able to map and design new molecules for medical use. This could mean new medicines and more effective treatments. It also could allow us to detect and treat cancer in less invasive ways. New and personalised treatments developed could eliminate side effects and tackle the resistant bacteria dilemma.
Another area that quantum computing has the potential to optimise is investment. Quantum technology can make quicker and more accurate decisions about where and how much to invest.
So why should we care?
Quantum computing is set to revolutionise the way we live. Once fully-functioning quantum computers are up and running, the potential is almost limitless. There is potential to map the depths of the ocean, solve (currently) impossible maths problems, and revolutionise cyber security.
An article by Arthur Herman recently posed that quantum computing is the modern equivalent of nuclear weapons. Herman posits that in the 21st century, global supremacy belongs to the country that controls quantum technology.
Quantum technology offers limitless scope for global development and is edging ever closer. Fully-functional quantum computers could be around in the next 12 years. Though they won’t make it to consumer hands until the 2030’s/40’s.