Harnessing Quantum Mechanics

Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist of the past generation, once said, “The computer is the most extraordinary of man’s technological clothing...beside it, the wheel is a mere hula hoop.” Next to quantum computers, perhaps our classical computers will look like simple gameboys.

Quantum computers use the principles of quantum physics to perform calculations impossible for a classical computer to handle to accurately because of their delicacy, intricacy, or multifaceted nature. So, how do they work?

In classical computing, a single piece of information is called a "bit" and is either a 1 or a 0. The two properties quantum computers use to disrupt this binary are "quantum superposition" and "quantum entanglement." Quantum superpostion allows quantum bits ("qubits") to be a 0 and 1 simultaneously. Quantum entanglement entwines multiple qubits, allowing for a greater number of calculations.

Up until now, this technology has been reserved for uppermost plateaus of academia. But this is about to change.

D-Wave, a system with 2000 qubits, was made commercially available on January 24: its first customer was Temporal Defence Systems Inc. However, the technology is limited because it is a quantum annealer — it can only focus on optimization, rather than optimization and design.

This problem may be solved by other companies, such as Google. The search giant's John Martinis claims his team will build a device that achieves "quantum supremacy" (working faster than our current supercomputers) by the end of the year. Another titan, IBM, will soon charge clients to use one of their quantum computers through the cloud as part of their IBM Q program, and foresee a commercial launch of quantum computers within the next few years.

And finally, we have Rigetti, a small start-up looking to beat these technological Goliaths by producing a prototype chip far more complicated than those of the competition by the end of 2017.

Computers of the Future

Quantum computers have the potential to fundamentally change almost any industry, but two of areas that most are focusing on at the moment are chemistry and finance.

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Quantum computers could expedite the discovery of medicines and materials, since the classical computers used now cannot simulate the atomic and subatomic motions of more complex molecules. Scott Crowder, IBM Systems vice president, said in an interview with Newsweek, “You don’t even ask those questions on a classical computer because you know you’re going to get it wrong.”

In the finance sector, quantum computers could be used to re-balance investment portfolios day to day — or even hour to hour. López de Prado claimed in an interview with Newsweek that having personal quantum computers could allow companies to "replace guesswork with science," using their own data and models rather than "listening to gurus or watching TV shows with Wall Street connections."

However, usability rather than technological attainability may prove to be the biggest hurtle to widespread adaptation of quantum computers. Programming scenarios with them requires an understanding of quantum physics at the very least.

In addition, very few people have actually used the computers, so experts are unsure if the principles they operate on will be similar to traditional programs. Dan Rowinski wrote in a post for ReadWrite that "the underlying logic for digital programs may not translate precisely (or at all) to the quantum-computing realm."

It is also worth noting that these quantum computers are not intended to replace classical computers, but to perform tasks that classical computers cannot. But whether or not we all have quantum computers in our homes in the next 10 or 20 years, one thing is certain: quantum computing will revolutionize our tech — and how we can use it — forever.

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