The Internet was all abuzz about quantum computing in the wake of Google’s recent unveiling of Sycamore, a quantum computer with an unprecedented processing power of 53 qubits. Sycamore is the first computer to reach “quantum supremacy”—a fancy term for describing the capability of quantum computers to solve tasks that home or standard ones cannot.
So what is quantum computing and how does it work? This article takes a look at the advances made in the space and how these affect users.
What Is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computing uses quantum bits or qubits as opposed to bits (binary digits 1 and 0) that standard computers use to calculate answers to complex problems through a process called superposition. Superposition uses so-called quantum states, which refer to all possible combinations of 1 and 0.
Let’s take a look at an example to clarify. Say you want to go from point A to point B. Most people are hardwired to trace a single path from A to B. In quantum computing, though, you’re supposed to exhaust all means possible to arrive at point B. Some may prove to be dead ends, while others won’t. Quantum computers operate the same way. They discover both the wrong and right solutions until they end up with the best answer.
Quantum Computing Pros and Cons
Quantum computing sits very well with academic institutions and government agencies. A shining proof is the US$218 million funding that the U.S. Department of Energy granted to research bodies dedicated to Quantum Information Science (QIS). With this generous financial backing, researchers can further explore known and theoretical applications of quantum computers, such as developing new drugs or building smart cities.
Skeptics, however, believe that the emerging technology brings specific risks. From a cybersecurity perspective, a quantum computer can undo encryption algorithms for network connections and digital data, such as messages sent over Viber, Whatsapp, or other messaging apps. What’s more, this can happen without warning, and in 200 seconds, no less. The consequences can be disastrous, as our jobs, personal activities, and transactions these days make use of encrypted data.
At the moment, mature or market-ready versions of quantum computers have proven useful in the following sectors:
- Transportation: Volkswagen teamed up with public transport provider CARRIS to test a traffic optimization system in Lisbon, Portugal, using quantum computers. The system relies on quantum computers to calculate the fastest route that the CARRIS fleet can take.
- Biomedical research: In 2012, Harvard University researchers used a quantum computer to simulate how protein folding occurs in molecular biochemistry. Protein folding is the process by which protein molecules transform from its simple structure into a coiled or three-dimensional one. Researchers study this process to discover how protein structures develop in degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and potentially find a cure. D-Wave, the quantum computer used, predicts the lowest-energy configurations of a folded protein.
- Finance: D-Wave and IBM both launched a commercial quantum computer that can be used to conduct financial risk modeling and analysis. The machine is also used in advanced investing, particularly in pricing derivatives—financial assets whose values depend on another—such as futures and stock options.
Indeed, the rise of quantum computing points to an exciting time in the world of computer science, physics, and technology as a whole. Future applications of quantum computing can bring forth innovations that improve the quality of life of many people. For now, we’ll have to wait and see until experts have ironed out kinks in currently available quantum computers.