A lot of bold claims have been written about the recent emergence of quantum computing. It will revolutionize computing. It will break cryptography and the encryption that protects the world’s data. It will enable the true rise of artificial intelligence as a force in the world.
While each of these assertions hint at some truth about the rise of quantum computers, there’s also a fair amount of hype going around. Quantum computing will change the world, but not all the predictions are factually accurate.
So let’s start with the basics of quantum computing.
Quantum computing is different than traditional computing because it escapes the binary foundation of the computer. Instead of yes or no, the 0s and 1s that form the foundation of current computer logic, there’s also “maybe.” These intermediate states occur because quantum computers take advantage of the quirky behavior of quantum phenomena.
This new model will alter the computing landscape and open the door for solving some problems faster than traditional computers. Prediction is far more efficient when there are intermediate states compared with the black and white logic of yes or no. But this development will not change everything. It just will change some things. And it probably won’t be making a big splash just yet.
So let’s look at three places where the hype is not in touch with reality when it comes to quantum computers today.
Hype: Quantum Computers Are Almost Ready for Prime Time.
Let’s start with the buzz around commercial application. Quantum computers, specifically the code needed to run them, are not ready yet.
“The most over-hyped aspect of quantum computing is the possible near-term algorithms because we do not know which if any will work on devices within the next three to five years, and which can be run efficiently on current digital computers,” says Dr. Joel Wallman, assistant professor of applied mathematics at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.
This paucity of appropriate code, much of which must be developed from the ground up, is just one hurdle that quantum computers must overcome before they are ready for widespread commercial use.
“Google’s recent 53-qubit demonstration (of quantum computing) is akin to the Wright brothers’ first flights at Kitty Hawk,” says William Oliver, an MIT associate professor who teaches the university’s xPRO course on quantum computing. “Their plane, the Wright Flyer, was not the first to fly. It didn’t solve any pressing transportation problem. Nor did it herald widespread adoption — commercial aviation would only gradually emerge over the next few decades.”
What the Wright Flyer did and what the quantum computers are doing now are simply proofs of concept.
Oliver notes that the transistor was invented in 1947, but it was 25 years before the world had the Intel 4004 4-bit processor. It was another 25 years before the world got to the Pentium Pro with 1M transistors, and then another 20 years before the multi-core processors and GPUs with billions of transistors.
“Quantum computers are nascent,” he says. “To realize their promise, we will need to build robust, reproducible machines and develop the algorithms to use them. Engineering and technology development take time.”
Hype: Hackers Are Breaking Encryption With Quantum Computers.
While undoubtedly there are unknown, advanced tools that state-sponsored hackers are developing (and using) right now for cyber espionage, don’t count quantum computers among them.
There’s a real chance that quantum computers will challenge current cryptography someday, rendering today’s encryption obsolete. This is a known problem that cybersecurity professionals face, just as the Y2K Millennium Bug was a real problem that required a fix back in 1999.
Right now quantum computing technology is nowhere near ready for this code-breaking, however. The world has time for developing the next generation of security technology before current encryption methods stop working.
“The reality is that to break today’s encryption requires a large-scale and fault tolerant quantum computer, and we aren’t there yet,” says Tim Zanni, US technology sector leader for KPMG. “Therefore, we’re unlikely to see a quantum computing-driven security breach in the near future.”
Hype: Quantum Computers Will Replace Traditional Computing.
Traditional computers don’t become obsolete when quantum computers finally reach commercial viability.
“It is important to understand that quantum computers will not replace classical computers,” says Dr. Bob Sutor, vice president for IBM’s quantum computing Q ecosystem development at IBM Research. “Quantum computers’ fundamental properties complement the traditional systems.”
That’s because the strength of quantum computers, having intermediate states somewhere between yes and no, can help the enterprise solve some forms of intractable classical problems that “blow up” or become extremely time-consuming with traditional computers, but they are not efficient for many of today’s other computing processes. The 0s and 1s of today’s computers are just fine for many computing applications, and there’s no need to completely replace traditional computers with quantum computers even if that were feasible.
Quantum computers therefore most likely will be a subset of the full computing landscape, just like there are processors built for graphics or AI but also other types of processors in use.
This means that a generation of computer science students also will need to learn how to use and code quantum computers for the coming emergence of the technology.
“From computer science courses to chemistry and business classes, students should be getting ‘quantum ready,’” says Sutor.
Quantum computing is real, and it will have an impact on the world. But we’re not there yet, and everything isn’t going to change once quantum computers do reach the point of commercial viability. The emergence of quantum computers is more like the slow emergence of commercial aviation.
“The rise of flight did not mark the ‘beginning of the end’ for other modes of transportation — 90 percent of commercial shipping is still done today by ships,” notes Oliver at MIT. “Rather, the events at Kitty Hawk are remembered for having demonstrated a new operational regime, the first self-propelled flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft.”
It’s what the flight represented, in other words, not what it practically accomplished. And so it is with this first demonstration of quantum computing.
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