Supercomputing, by the very name and nature, seems like the biggest and best that the world of computing technology has to offer. The large numbers of processing units and massive memory of supercomputers translate to very high-speed processing of complex computations and problems, advanced security, and fast and accurate data analysis. Why would you ever need anything better? How could you possibly have something better even if you wanted it?
But there is something better, and it’s been around for a long time in a theoretical sense, though only a very short time in reality: quantum computing.
How it works
Quantum computing builds on more than 100 years of thought and research on the concept of quantum mechanics, which itself involves how energy and matter in nature move and behave at an atomic scale–or even smaller. Albert Einstein in 1908 first described the photoelectric effect–how light hitting a metal surface changes and moves the electrons reflecting off of that surface, essentially changing the state of atomic and sub-atomic light particles.
So, let’s go ahead and skip the rest of the 100-years-plus history of extremely smart people debating and experimenting and gnashing their teeth about what that means and how the mechanics of it might be controlled. Modern quantum computing uses super-cold fluids to chill superconducting qubits–the qubit being to quantum computing what the bit is to classical computing. However, unlike bits, which each represent a 1 or a 0 in a computation, a qubit can be a 1 or a 0, or both at the same time, vastly increasing the potential values, combinations and number of paths computations simultaneously can take.
For example, a one-qubit computer can hold four different value combinations: 0 and 1, 1 and 0, 0 and 0 and 1 and 1. A eight-qubit machine, with each qubit maintaining four value combinations, can have 32 total value combinations. This concept, called superposition, enables the creation of a large computational space in which tasks can be processed in parallel at much greater speed than classical computers.
Still, all these qubits by themselves would not be worth much if they could not be controlled in a precise way to ensure accurate computations. This is where the notion of quantum entanglement comes in. Algorithms are applied to the qubits to enable them to work in concert with one another.
“By firing photons at the qubit, we can control its behavior and get it to hold, change, and read out information,” according to IBM’s website, which goes on to state, “…by creating many [qubits] and connecting them in a state called superposition we can create vast computational spaces. We then represent complex problems in this space using programmable gates. Quantum entanglement allows qubits, which behave randomly, to be perfectly correlated with each other… Using quantum algorithms that exploit quantum entanglement, specific complex problems can be solved more efficiently than on classical computers.”
Quantum computers can solve computations much more quickly than classical computers. The value of this capability increases exponentially with the size of the problem to be solved, since the quantum computer can run many combinations in parallel, whole the classical computer has to take a slower approach with all of its 1s and 0s in a fixed state.
This can translate to much faster predictive modeling of markets and economic scenarios, as well as more secure transactions, for the financial services industry; better modeling of chemical reactions, which could help healthcare and pharmaceutical research; real-time modeling of weather data; and the optimization of extremely large and extremely complex global supply chains, according to PA Consulting/
Where’s it all going?
In the last 20 or so years, quantum computing has moved from the university lab to to the business world, and from theory about what might be possible to the reality of actually doing it. While IBM often gets credit for building the first cloud-based commercial quantum computer, which almost anyone can register to train on and use, IBM and Google each have spent the last five years or so in a game of one-upmanship as they each have come up with increasingly powerful quantum computers.
The next steps for quantum computing could move–true to form–in several different directions at once. Some firms are focusing on developing ever more powerful quantum computers with more qubits packed into a single processor. Companies such as QuTech are developing quantum networks–quantum communication of qubits between quantum nodes. QuTech has built one such network in Europe which should be up and running next year. From this network notion, many experts and companies in the sector are anticipating the development of a much broader quantum internet that potentially could run in parallel to the existing internet.
At the same time, many researchers and firms are exploring and advancing the integration of classical and quantum computing, which involves everything from creating silicon-based quantum computers to using quantum mechanics to vastly improve classical computers. Others are working on developing smaller form factor quantum computers with an eye toward creating smaller workstations for commercial uses, and perhaps even PCs and ultra-portable quantum computing devices for individuals. Still others are dedicated to using quantum random number generation and related techniques to improve security methods and encryption, an especially critical mission as quantum computing could be used to break current encryption models.
In any case, it is becoming increasingly clear that while the first baby steps of quantum theory too more than 100 years to occur, quantum computing in real life is now evolving at a blindingly fast pace–the speed of light hitting a surface.
Forbes: “27 milestones in the history of quantum computing”
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