photo by Steve Jurvetson modified by Curiousmatic
Quantum computers promise to revolutionize countless aspects of our lives – from medicine to transportation – and successfully propel humans into the new computer age.
Quantum theory may seem like a concept better suited for futurists and hollywood blockbusters (a la Interstellar), but if Google has anything to do with it, quantum mechanics will soon make a quantum leap into our everyday computers.
Quantum computers – which for decades after their conceptualization in 1980 were thought to be little more than futuristic daydreams – have made significant progress over the past ten years.
With a little help from Google and some of the most cutting edge computer scientists around the world, quantum computing is set to reverse a potential slowdown of Moore’s law and propel digital computing into the quantum future.
So, what exactly do these mysterious new machines have in store for us?
What is a quantum computer anyway?
You may be asking yourself: what separates a quantum computer from the typical amalgamation of metal and plastic available at your local computer store? For one – everything.
Unlike traditional transistor-based computing which uses bits – a sequence of 1’s and 0’s – to encode and and store information, quantum computers use what scientists have aptly dubbed “qubits.”
While traditional bits are only capable of existing in a state of either 1 or 0 at any given point in time, Qubits, by leveraging a quantum law called superposition, are able exist in both states simultaneously.
A computer with two bits can come up with the the following sequence of bits:
00, 01, 10, or, 11
Two qubits, on the other hand, are capable of being in all four of these states simultaneously.
This makes them capable of quickly processing huge calculations, ones that could take a traditional computer months, even years, to complete.
What kinds of promises do quantum computers hold?
The promise of quantum computing – though still distant from actualization – is tantalizing.
Quantum computing promises to phase out even the world’s most advanced supercomputers like China’s Tianhe-2 – a supercomputer so sophisticated that it’s capable of making 55 quadrillion calculations per second.
Since quantum computers will be able to support extremely advanced software and allow engineers to expand vastly on the capabilities of our current computer models and algorithms, their benefits could be tremendous.
While a fully functional quantum processor would serve little to no purpose in the hands of your average smartphone user (do you really need quantum mechanics to send a snapchat?), they could have paradigm-shifting benefits to areas like medicine or transportation.
Making jets safer – using Quantum computing, Lockheed Martin hopes to implement computer software that is currently far too advanced for classical computers
Helping us find new planets – a Quantum computer would be able to analyze the overwhelming amounts of data collected from space, making it capable of searching for, and finding new and possibly habitable planets
Saving lives – by mapping amino acids and analyzing DNA doctors will be able to use computers to develop more sophisticated and genetically personalized medicine
Basically, any field that uses a computers to analyze data will benefit greatly from the advantages of a powerful Quantum machine – this includes A.I. development, which could use quantum computing to greatly improve machine learning.
Preliminary models of quantum processors have actually already been constructed to somewhat controversial results: the startup D-Wave claims to have made the first commercially available quantum computer, but has been criticized by other researchers for failing to provide real evidence of its efficacy.
With the likes of NASA and Google fully invested in the future of quantum computing, however, things have taken a more serious turn.
In 2014 Google and NASA announced that they would begin jointly designing and building hardware as a part of their quantum initiative, called the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (also known by its less compelling acronym, QuAIL)
The venture is currently spearheaded by Professor John Martinis at UC Santa Barbara – a thought leader on quantum computing who is expected to bring the science closer to reality than ever before.
Ironing out the kinks
Despite some progress, there still remains some quantum quandaries for scientists pioneering the field.
For instance, states like those experienced inside a quantum processor are very fragile. This means any minor disruptions like temperatures above absolute zero (which means 150 times colder than deep space) or even slight noise interferences can collapse their quantum state, rendering the processor useless.
Recently, however, one of the more perplexing obstacles to quantum computing, called “error-correction,” was the subject of a major breakthrough.
According to Tech Times, researchers were able to create the world’s first error-correcting quantum processor, which will help stabilize miscalculations resulting from qubits inherently volatile state.
When can we expect quantum computing?
So, just where are these computers on our horizon? The short answer is a ways. But maybe not as far as once thought.
According to MIT Professor Scott Aaronson, Google’s recent breakthrough, which created the world’s first fully functioning error-correcting qubits, can be considered step “3.5” out of 7 steps to an operational quantum computer.
How long the last 3.5 steps will take remains to be seen. Some estimates have the first commercially available quantum computer out for another 20 years.