In the early 1980s, famous physicist Richard Feynman wondered about the possibility of simulating physics on a computer. The answer turned out to be that, yes, it could be done, though not completely. Over the years, Feynman and others began developing such computers. Their uses include studying quantum physics, analyzing massive amounts of data, and working out solutions to highly complex problems.
Quantum physics may sound like something from Star Trek, but it’s a real discipline and already part of our lives. Both the laser and the transistor were invented based on quantum theory, and most of our electronic devices are as well. Quantum computers are based on the same principles as quantum physics, specifically, a particle (or piece of data) having the ability to potentially be in more than one state.
At BairesDev, we’re always intrigued with emerging technologies, so we decided to explore what quantum computers are, how they work, what their uses are, and how soon they might come into more common use.
What Is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computing is based on the principles of quantum mechanics, which deals with atomic and subatomic particles. These principles enable quantum computers to perform actions that aren’t possible with traditional binary computers. Specifically, these machines can perform multiple operations simultaneously, whereas traditional computers must perform one operation at a time.
While traditional computers are based on the bit as the basic unit of information, quantum computers are based on the qubit. Bits, being binary in nature, can take only one possible form at a time – a 1 or a 0. Qubits, on the other hand, can be both a 1 and a 0 at the same time. This characteristic, known as superposition, makes it possible for a quantum computer to perform billions of more operations per second than traditional computers.
The following video offers an entertaining description of quantum computing:
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Quantum computers don’t use programming languages like Java. Instead, they require the deployment of very specific algorithms. Additionally, they have no memory or processor like a traditional computer. Instead, they use only qubits to run. Because they’re much more complex, these machines aren’t intended for consumer use. Rather, they’re meant to be used in corporate, scientific, medical, and technological environments.
What Quantum Computers Can Do
These computers can perform tasks much faster than traditional computers and even encode information in quantum particles, which disappear in one location and reappear in another. Eventually, this process could form the foundation of a quantum internet.
With their ability to improve data analysis and machine learning, quantum computers will contribute to many fields, including:
- Business – in solving complex optimization tasks and performing fast searches for data
- Healthcare – in the development of new drugs
- Finance – in investment optimization and improved fraud detection
- Cybersecurity – in improved data encryption
- Transportation – in improved traffic planning and the design of more efficient vehicles
Perhaps one of the most promising uses of quantum computers is solving global scientific problems such as the climate crisis. While traditional computers are already working on this problem, quantum computers can work much faster and more accurately.
ZDNet states, “The implications for a computing network where quantum processing plays a role, are enormous: hurricane models that account for every water molecule; global warming models that pinpoint next year’s forest fires; pandemic models that ascertain which species of bat when consumed and under what conditions, produce future coronaviruses.”
How Quantum Computers Will Change Things
Quantum computers won’t necessarily replace traditional computers because they operate in a fundamentally different way. With traditional computers, we expect a definitive answer to problems we ask them to solve. Quantum computers produce probabilities rather than definite solutions.
As such, quantum computers will be used for different tasks, such as solving highly complex problems in much shorter time spans than are possible today. Still, they could bring new processes to traditional computing and other aspects of modern life:
- While quantum computers could potentially defeat many of today’s encryption techniques, they will also be able to create new ones that will be much more secure.
- Quantum computers will be very good at optimizing certain processes, such as the logistical complexities of delivering packages or scheduling airplane flights.
- Contrary to what you might think, quantum computers will actually use less electricity than traditional computers.
Challenges with Quantum Computing
Quantum computers are extremely sensitive machines, requiring specific conditions, including pressure and temperature settings, to operate properly. Additionally, they must be protected from external particles, so they must be sealed and operated using traditional computers to prevent errors. They can only operate for brief intervals. Researchers are already trying to find ways to use these systems in more practical ways without increasing the incidence of errors.
Another hurdle to overcome in the use of quantum computers is linking quantum processors in the same way we now connect computer chips using intranets. The process requires a complex data transfer process that has not yet been perfected.
Scientific American states, “More research should bring us closer to advanced quantum technologies and the grandest goal of quantum information science, creating a fault-tolerant quantum computer that can indefinitely compute without errors.”
When Will Quantum Computing Become Mainstream?
Quantum computers won’t likely become mainstream in the same way traditional computers did. That is, this technology isn’t meant for everyone to have at home. However, Quantum research and development is already well underway. Tech companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are investing in creating large-scale quantum computing equipment and applications.
Also, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) recently announced five new National Quantum Information Science Research centers. They’re part of the National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018, which provides $625 million in funding over five years.
What’s Next for Quantum Computing?
Just as no one could have predicted the astonishing variety of uses for traditional computers and the internet, it’s hard to imagine what innovations quantum computing might bring. Given that scientists, government officials, industry leaders, and others are already exploring their many possible uses, it’s likely we’ll be hearing much more about this promising technology in the years to come.