It is real but makes no sense to our everyday experience. And, it is now at your fingertips thanks to the cloud. Pay close attention, you may be the beneficiary or casualty of it soon.
What do you mean something can be both one thing and another at the same time? Or, there is instantaneous communication between particles at great distances with no known means? Makes your head hurt a bit, doesn’t it? It did for Einstein. At the beginning of our understanding of quantum theory about 100 years ago, he not only said, “God does not play dice” but that the ability for one thing to know what is happening to another instantaneously, even when far apart was “spooky”.
Nonetheless, decades and decades of experiments have confirmed the phenomena of quantum physics and at some deep level, the fundamental nature of reality is vastly different than our everyday sense of it. So what? Well among many other things applying quantum mechanics to computing opens up vast capabilities. Today’s computers are pretty powerful but they are still limited in what they can do. Many computations are too complex or would take too long to solve even using the best of today’s supercomputers.
Back in 2014, Time magazine called quantum computing the “Infinity Machine” for all the possibilities they might unfold for us. Stunning advances in medicine, every branch of science and technology and even in politics and our understanding of society and economics.
Drug design is expensive and still, hit or miss process. Quantum computing would enable researchers to precisely model molecules and their interactions with incredible precision thereby speeding up the development of new medicines. Weather forecasts are limited by the amount of data collected and how fast today’s computers can crunch it. Imagine the increase in accuracy if we could rapidly analyze incoming weather data hundreds or thousands of time faster. In the world of finance, 75% of all trades are done by machine today exploiting very small differences in prices and knowledge among traders. What will happen when we can do this with machines that can explore all possibilities almost instantly?
On the flip side, almost all the encryption methods we use today would fail under its onslaught. Today data security is achieved through encryption keys generated by multiplying two large prime numbers to protect most data. Trying to crack a key by determining what those numbers turn out to be devilishly difficult and time-consuming. We are talking about time in years, decades or centuries. Quantum computing operates so fast that most keys would fall open quickly. Luckily, it also points a way to do a new kind of encryption, too.
The quantum mechanics behind the computing is pretty nonintuitive as we said. Concepts like the “qubit”, “entanglement” and “decoherence” are not in most of our everyday conversations. But, if you want to try to wrap your head around what quantum computing is try the Time article or try this one.
If you still struggle with the weirdness don’t feel bad. Even the physicists who use quantum theory every day, and who all agree on how to use its mathematics to explain and predict the results of experiments, can’t agree on words to say what’s happening, or on how to fit quantum phenomena into some new and expanded version of common sense. Many concluded that this disconnect between mathematics and intuition was permanent and that since it was fruitless to try to explain quantum phenomena in everyday language, physicists should just shut up and calculate.
We have been working on going from the physics of quantum computing to engineering working machines since the 1970’s. As we turned into this century the pace has really been increasing. It was only a year ago the researchers from MIT and the University of Innsbruck in Austria announced that they had built a functional quantum computer that could scale. Now, IBM just announced that it was taking quantum computing out of its R&D lab and offering it as a commercial service in the cloud.
Where will we be next year, and the one after that? 2020 could look pretty interesting. Think about how this might affect an aspect of your life. Go ahead, just Google “quantum computing” plus any topic you like (e.g. medicine, education, finance, etc.). You’ll be tickled by the results. Maybe it’s even time to make some investments.