In the next decade, quantum computers will be the embodiment of the biggest leap in the world of computing. Because of their ability to leverage the laws of Quantum physics, they will be exponentially more powerful than traditional computers. For Thierry Breton, CEO of the Altos group, these computers will be a “technological disruptor”. Since the inception in the early 90’s of this technology into small scale computers, scientists have made huge progress in the field. But how does the technology actually work?
Today’s computers work on a binary system that is coded in bits. This binary system served us well for a great number of years, however its limitations are starting to show in terms of the ability to process and store vast amounts of data. Even supercomputers, which have pushed the boundaries of science, can be maxed out by the complexity of some operations. Vincent Rollet from the Pandora Institute explains it simply – they just don’t “think” the right way. Scientists have now created a whole new way for these machines to think.
How does it work?
To realise these complex operations, quantum computers make use of the laws of quantum physics. Their processors depend on two interactions; quantum superposition and quantum entanglement, which happens at the microscopic quantum scale. “Instead of using bits […] the computer uses quantum bits, or qbits, which do not have a set value of 1 or 0, but instead can be a superposition of both 1 or 0” explains Vincent Rollet. The use of qbits, described for the first time in a paper in 2009, can multiply storage and processing capability exponentially compared to traditional computing. But in the same step, it is also throttled by the limitations of the laws of quantum physics, and in particular the phenomenon of “decoherence”, where the quantum behaviour can disappear if the system is not properly isolated.
In this article from Futura Sciences scientists are showing signs of progress against the limitations of quantum physics. Quantum computers must run in extremely cold environments protected from shocks and sounds, which can make researching quantum computing quite costly. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped the big players in the computer industry from throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at it, and from the size of the investments made in quantum computing a progress should theoretically only be around the corner.For the time being however Google seems to be ahead of the race with Bristlecone, its 72 qbit machine revealed on the 5th of mars 2018. It’s the most powerful one created thus far and researchers at the Quantum AI lab predict that it will soon outperform traditional supercomputers. Its closest competitor, IBM, is close behind with a 50 qbit machine. Xavier Vasquez, tech director at IBM France, has stated that their efforts will eventually lead to a “universal quantum computer” in the next decade or so.
Outside of complex mathematical operations, quantum computing could be used in other different fields. On its website, IBM has listed possible future applications for quantum computing; according to the company, the computers will be able to make huge leaps in the fields of medicine, bioinformatics and AI, but also in other more surprising fields. Quantum computers could potentially help accurately predict turmoil in climate and financial models, and help alleviate the consequences of these crises. For the moment however these machines remain in the domain of research only. Mikhail Lukin, physics professor at Harvard, thinks that this will not be the case for long and we will soon be seeing quantum computers as a part of everyday life.
When things go wrong
A recent article in Wired thinks that these computers could possibly become “the next big security risk”. If they keep pushing the boundaries of science, they could at the same disrupt our traditional IT infrastructures. Our emails, our financial transactions, our interactions online are all dependant on RSA encryption. But the power of these new quantum computers could render the information we trust to traditional encryption completely useless. Its sheer processing power could just outmuscle complex security systems in charge of protecting the infrastructures of large companies, or even sovereign states. For this reason, quantum supremacy must remain under control – and in the right hands.