We all know that technology is constantly advancing and evolving, changing the way that companies do business. From the seismic shift brought about by the incorporation of computers and the internet in the workplace to the explosion of smartphones and social media, breakthroughs in technology have come fast and furious these last few decades. And many experts agree that quantum computing is poised to bring about another paradigm shift.
But what actually is quantum computing? It’s similar to traditional computers we use now but uses a field of theoretical physics known as quantum mechanics to vastly improve processing power. Classical computers encode data onto binary digits, known as bits, which are always in one of two states (0 or 1), but quantum computers use what are called quantum bits, or “qubits,” which can exist in “superpositions” of states. Superposition means that these qubits can exist in multiple states simultaneously, rather than just as either 0 or 1. Consider a sphere: the binary functioning of classical computing means a bit can occupy one pole on the sphere or the other; a qubit, however, can exist anywhere on the sphere’s surface. The difference in processing power is potentially exponential.
That said, quantum computers wouldn’t necessarily replace all classical computers; for some calculations, a quantum computer would actually be slower than a binary machine. And despite many recent breakthroughs in the field, quantum computers are still largely theoretical, as scientists still have trouble getting qubits to remain stable; according to a report in Wired, in November 2017 IBM, one of the leaders in quantum computing research, announced that it had built a 50-qubit computer, but it could only hold the required state for 90 microseconds – a record. Practical use for true quantum computers is seen as being anywhere from three to 20 years away.
Because quantum computers represent a potential evolutionary leap forward in computational power, many of the sectors poised to feel the immediate impact are among the most technologically-focused. Here are some of the industries that stand to be transformed by the advent of quantum computers.
The potential of artificial intelligence and machine learning has been a point of discussion for years now in tech circles, and quantum computing would be a huge boon to that burgeoning sector. Quantum computers can analyze and process vast amounts of data and give feedback in a far more efficient manner than classical computers. Quantum computing would allow A.I. to self-correct and truly learn from their experiences, bringing them closer than ever to true artificial intelligence. Subsequently, these more complex and intuitive A.I. systems would be even more beneficial to companies that are already integrating rudimentary A.I. into their business models.
One of the biggest breakthroughs that quantum computing represents is in the world of computer security. Simply put, the advent of quantum computers will make current encryption methods obsolete. Today’s binary computers are effectively incapable of breaking any encryption that utilizes very large prime number factorization (i.e. with more than 300 integers). A quantum computer, however, could break this sort of encryption quite easily. It means that quantum computers would make it simpler to safeguard valuable data – and much easier to crack traditional encryption. According to a recent report from the Global Risk Institute, there’s a 1 in 7 chance that “vital” cryptography tools will be rendered useless by 2026, and by 2031 that probability rises to 50%.
This would have obvious and immediate ramifications for financial institutions or any business that stores valuable information electronically. The upside to this is that work is already underway to develop quantum encryption methods like quantum key distribution, which necessitates the use of a key to decrypt a message. And thanks to the way quantum mechanics work, even if the message is intercepted by a third party, it’s still impossible to decipher without the key.
One of the difficulties of developing effective new drugs is that there are billions of different ways that a chemical (or combination of chemicals) will react to the human body, and every person is slightly different, genetically speaking. Chemists must assess how everything interacts on a minute level, involving molecules and proteins; the number of combinations that require analysis are mind-boggling. Currently, it can take a decade or more to develop a new drug or medical treatment, but quantum computers could change all that in a heartbeat. With the ability to analyze several different molecules, proteins, and chemicals all at once, it would theoretically make it far easier for chemists to find viable options for new drugs, and faster breakthroughs could lead to cures for many diseases. With a quantum computer, a person’s genes could also be sequenced and examined much faster than is possible today, making pharmaceutical development far more personalized.
Ground and Air Traffic Control
Quantum computers have the potential to greatly improve traffic control both on the ground and in the air. A quantum computer could quickly calculate ideal routes and reduce congestion, and the potential to assist in the routing and scheduling of aircraft could have a huge economic impact for airlines in terms of saving both time and money. Huge aerospace fi rms like Lockheed Martin and Airbus are already researching and investing in quantum computing technology, so the potential value is clearly there for those multibillion-dollar companies. A quantum computer could also help optimize supply chains, deliveries, and the operations of entire fleets of vehicles.
Climate Change and Weather Models
As most of us know, even here in the 21st century weather forecasting appears to still be an inexact science. Flash floods can happen with little to no warning, while people and communities can spend days preparing for a powerful blizzard only to see a light dusting of snow. But quantum computers can look at so much more data simultaneously that meteorologists will have far more accurate information about what weather will happen, and when. The U.K.’s national weather service has already invested in quantum computing technology in an effort to improve the accuracy of its forecasts.
What’s more, the increased accuracy made possible by quantum computing will also allow scientists to build better climate models and therefore develop a better understanding of what affects and changes climate, which will make it much easier to deal with climate change and better understand its effects.
The Future Beckons
As much as quantum computers are still primarily seen as something on the horizon, there are early versions currently in use. Burnaby, B.C.-based D-Wave Systems is a quantum computing company that already sells a version of a quantum computer, although whether the company’s D-Wave 2000Q system, which “exploits quantum mechanical effects to provide an entirely new type of computational resource” is a “true” quantum computer is a matter of debate within some circles. The Canadian company’s technology has certainly proved intriguing to major corporations like Airbus, Lockheed Martin, and Volkswagen, all of which are already using D-Wave’s quantum system.
Justin Anderson | Contributing Writer