Beyond Science Fiction
In 1935, Albert Einstein famously collaborated with physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen on a paper designed to illuminate the weaknesses in quantum mechanics, a branch of physics focused on the very small. Though the phenomenon of "entanglement" was so new the term hadn't even been coined yet, Einstein wasted no time voicing his skepticism of it, calling the "spooky action at a distance" simply impossible.
Nearly a century later, we now have abundant proof that entanglement is possible. In fact, we're now on the brink of building the quantum computers that will allow us to use the phenomenon to answer some of humanity's greatest questions.
Quantum computers handle and process information in a way far different from that of classical computers.
While a classical computer works with bits as information placeholders, a quantum computer works with quantum bits (qubits). While bits carry information in either a 0 or 1 state, qubits can be 0s and 1s at the same time thanks to quantum superposition.
Meanwhile, entanglement allows particles to be manipulated despite the distance between them — anything that happens to one particle will instantly be reflected in the other. Information can, therefore, be sent across greater distances far more quickly than with classical computers.
Although the field of quantum computing is still in its nascent stages and extremely complicated, researchers have made significant advances in recent years on the development of working quantum computers. They've found ways to sustain the life of qubits to increase the length of time information could be contained in a quantum system, and according to experts, working quantum computers will very likely be available in the next couple of decades.
"Nobody is saying 'never' anymore," Scott Totzke, Chief Executive of the Canadian firm Isara Corp., told The Wall Street Journal. "We are in the very, very early days, but we are well past the science-fiction point."
So, what can we expect from the future of quantum computing?
Life With Quantum Computers
Quantum computers will be capable of performing vastly more complicated computations than classical computers, and according to William Hurley, chair of the Quantum Computing Standards Workgroup at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the implications of that will be tremendous.
Hurley elaborated on this in an email to Futurism:
It's my personal belief that quantum computing will help us make sense of the deluge of data we find ourselves creating to solve some very interesting problems. There are systems generating billions of data sets a day, and those might be the solution to some critical problems affecting society, but we can't possibly begin to [work] through [all the data]. To me, that's extremely exciting.
In short, the future of quantum computing will see us solving some of the most complex questions facing the world today and not just in fields like physics or science.
"I think there's a huge opportunity for quantum computing to disrupt a number of industries," said Hurley. "However, I believe that the financial, pharmaceutical, and security industries will see the most change in the shortest amount of time."
While some experts have warned that this power could be used for nefarious purposes, Hurley believes the good will outweigh the bad:
There will always be reasons to temper our optimism around any new technological advance. Still, I am incredibly excited about the potential positive outcomes of quantum computing. From finding new cures to diseases to helping discover new particles, I think this is the most excited I have been in my entire career. We should be focusing our energy as much on the positive outcomes as we currently are the negative ones.
A New Kind of Internet
So-called quantum communications is one of the more interesting applications planned for the future of quantum computing.
Researchers in China and elsewhere in the world have begun exploring the potential of building quantum networks using the same principles behind quantum computing. The creation of these networks would eventually open the door for a quantum internet, a more secure communication system in which information is stored and transmitted with advanced cryptography. Such a network, however, couldn't be truly realized until quantum computers become scalable, which Futurism readers think will happen before 2050.
While researchers have managed to create quantum computers, they are all bulky and only work in specialized environments. Therefore, the future of quantum computing may include the adoption of alternatives to the systems currently being created in cutting-edge laboratories.
The path forward may be through the creation of specialized computer chips capable of functioning like quantum computers but sans the state-of-the-art components those systems require. The quantum computing revolution could also well begin with the average person accessing a quantum computer through a cloud service, such as those IBM and Google have created.
"I think you're going to see general availability of simulators and emulators that are useful in the next 24 months," said Hurley. Still, those systems would just be a placeholder for the real deal, which he sees arriving in the not-so-distant future: "I would love to see a universal quantum computer available as earlier as three to five years out, and I believe that could be possible."