The exciting landscape of modern life has been built with the aid of powerful computers. They have done dazzling things, from making the trains run on time to helping to build skyscrapers. Now, imagine a discontinuity in computing in which these capabilities are suddenly expanded and enhanced by orders of magnitude.
You won’t have to imagine too much longer. It is in the process of happening. The fascinating thing is that this change is based on quantum science, which is completely counter-intuitive and not fully understood, even by those who are harnessing it.
Today’s computers are binary, meaning that they are based on bits that represent either a 1 or a 0. As fast as they go, this is a basic, physical gating factor that limits how much work they can do in a given amount of time. The next wave of computers uses quantum bits – called qubits – that can simultaneously represent a 1 and a 0. This root of the mysteries that even scientists refer to as “quantum weirdness” allows the computers to do computations in parallel instead of sequentially. Not surprisingly, this greatly expands the ability of this class of computers.
The details of how quantum computers operate are more or less impossible to understand. A couple of related points are clear, however: Harnessing the power of quantum mechanics to create incredibly powerful machines is not a pipe dream: Companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Google, as well as startups and universities, don’t sink billions of dollars in flights of fancy.
The second point is that the payoff is here, or at least quite near. The world of computing won’t instantaneously change once quantum actions are proven. It is still a long road to being fully commercialized, bypassing classical approaches and, finally, living up to the most extravagant promise.
In late May, Microsoft and Purdue University announced research on quantum computing that focuses on one of the key challenges, which is the extraordinarily fragile nature of the qubits. Indeed, the subject of the research is a good example of the amazing complexity of the field and how far it has to go.
In quantum mechanics, the mere act of looking at the system makes it “choose” between the 1 and the 0 and exit the quantum state. The task of the Microsoft/Purdue research is to develop “topological” qubits that are stable enough to function in the real world.
In essence, according to Professor Michael Manfra, the university’s Bill and Dee O’Brien Chair Professor of Physics and Astronomy, stability increases as the quantum properties are spread out.
“The quantum variable that houses information is really a property of the quantum system as [a] whole,” he wrote to IT Business Edge in response to emailed questions. “More particles may be needed to define the qubit, but this complexity has an advantage – while a local disturbance or perturbation can flip an individual spin, it is much less likely to change the state of the entire quantum system that comprises a topological qubit. Therefore these topological qubits are expected to be more robust. They do not couple well to the commonly occurring noise in the environment.”
Preparing for the Quantum Future
There is an angle to all of this that is refreshingly straightforward and accessible, however: Great change is coming and companies need to prepare for quantum computing. Indeed, even assuming that the high-profile changes are down the road a bit, they will be massive when they do arrive.
The bottom line is that planners need to think about quantum computing. A logical first step in assessing the impact is identifying the tasks it will most likely perform. In responses to emailed questions, Jerry Chow, the manager of Experimental Quantum Computing for IBM, told IT Business Edge that four areas likely to be affected are business optimization (in areas such as the supply chain, logistics, modeling financial data and risk analysis); materials and chemistry; artificial intelligence and cloud security.
Things may not be quite as clear cut, however. David Schatsky, the managing director of Deloitte LLP, told IT Business Edge, in response to emailed questions, that risk management, investment portfolio design, trading strategies, and the design of transportation and communications networks will be affected. Quantum computer, he wrote, could be disruptive in cryptography, drug design, energy, nano-engineering and research.
That’s an almost intimidating list. However, Schatsky prefaced it with a disclaimer: “Quantum computing will entirely transform some kinds of work and have negligible impact on others. The truth is, researchers don’t yet know all the types of problems quantum computing may be good for.”
There Is Still Time to Prepare
Luckily, planners have time. Quantum computing will be a massive change, but one that will be gradual. “It makes sense to think of quantum computing as a new segment of the supercomputer market, which is a small fraction of overall IT spending,” Schatsky wrote. “Annual supercomputer server sales total about $11 billion globally by some estimates. I suspect quantum computing revenues will be a very small fraction of that for years to come. So I’m not sure it’s going to become ‘common’ anytime soon.”
Though it clearly will be quite a while before people are buying quantum computers on Amazon, organizations need to be thinking about quantum computing today. The power of quantum computing is so extreme, especially when coupled with artificial intelligence and other emerging techniques, it is clear that all of that time must be put to good use.
IBM’s Chow said that quantum-driven platforms such as Watson will be able to find patterns that are buried too deeply for classical computers. This will open “new frontiers for discovery,” he wrote.
It is a new age, not a new computer.
“Corporations should ask: How do I learn about quantum computing to get a feel for where it might make a difference? Now is the time to realize its enormous potential, and that this is a field ripe for innovation and exploration that goes beyond simply just an end application. Becoming quantum-ready is about participating in a revolution within computing. People need to learn the details enough to open their minds up about what could be possible.”
And, eventually, quantum mechanics may go beyond computing.
“In general terms, I believe the development of quantum technologies is inevitable – quantum computing is perhaps just the most visible example,” Manfra wrote. “It is not hard to imagine that certain businesses in which innovation may be enhanced by dramatic improvement in computational capabilities will need to have long-term plans which exploit quantum machines once they become available.”
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.