APRIL 2018

Q is for Quantum

Say goodbye to 1s and 0s, leave Moore’s Law in its wake, and ride the investment trend: welcome to the biggest of the next-big-things.

Let’s start with the basics.

Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics. Put simply, it describes nature at the smallest scales of energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles. A Quantum computer is a computer that makes direct use of quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as superposition (the ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at any time) and entanglement (the correlation of two different systems), to perform operations on data. With superposition of states 1 and 0, qubits can encode more information than a traditional bit. With entangled qubits we could encode an exponentially large number of states. Therefore, ‘n” qubits can represent 2^n input at once, significantly speeding up operation. To put that in context, a quantum computer can solve complex problems that would take today’s computers billions of years to solve - in just hours or days.

Goodbye 1s and 0s?

That’s it. In traditional computing, a bit is a basic unit of information with only two states - zero and one, and with a deterministic measurement. In quantum computing, a qubit is a unit of information with an infinite number of states: zero, one, or a state between zero and one with a certain value of probability. So its state is no longer deterministic, but probabilistic.

Ok, I’m lost.

No problem. Enjoy the Quantum Game to better understand the difference between traditional computers and quantum computers. Plus, we highly recommend you read an explanation of quantum computing by Hackernoon.

Why now?

Private companies and researchers are working to bring us quantum computers because they believe the devices will greatly outperform classical supercomputers. In this sense, we’re back to the 70s with huge machines in laboratories, working at almost 0 Kelvin temperatures for some architectures.

Currently, we’re in the age of ‘quantum supremacy’. This refers to the challenge of a quantum computer solving a problem a classical computer cannot. Some researchers think this could happen when quantum computers reach 100 qubits. Google is currently the closest, with its brand new 72 qubits quantum processor called Bristlecone.

The challenge is on!

Slow down. Quantum computers are not yet general-purpose computers and most of today’s computers are quantum annealers. These are used mainly for problems where the search space is discrete, with many local minima. These computers can already solve some problems much faster than current CPUs. It’s the case of DWave.

Where can we use quantum computers?

The answer is that the sky’s the limit. Think about the security of current cryptography that depends on the computational difficulty of certain mathematical problems. Well, quantum computers will be able to solve them much more easily. NSA, National Security Agency, is already updating standards for the world ‘post-quantum’. And since machine learning and data analysis are based on both sampling and optimisation methods, being able to improve these techniques will ultimately lead to better machine learning capabilities.

Where else?

More and more applications are coming. For example, manufacturing, with its supply chain optimisation challenges, and financial services, with its portfolio risk optimisation and fraud detection. Moreover, quantum processing power of just 50 qubits is already achieving results in areas including protein folding, drug discovery and material science. Understandably, this is attracting lots of investment.

Who’s investing?

Investment in quantum computing is increasing month by month. The strongest players are IBM, Microsoft with its Liquid programme and Q# language, and Google with Playground. IBM has announced this year the availability of the QCloud, which its community of partners and developers can use to build apps through a quantum computer as a service.

Prepare for the future!

In one or two years, quantum supremacy will be a reality. In five or so years, some RSA keys could be cracked by quantum computers, while machine and deep-learning algorithms could take too long to perform in standard supercomputers to be of any use. It’ll probably take 10 to 15 years to have a working quantum PC architecture. And maybe in the distant future, thanks to a quantum computer, we’ll be able to bring together quantum mechanics and relativity to prove the theory of everything, In other words, how the universe works. So farewell, Mr. Hawking.

Cover pic source: Unsplash

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