Google, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, China, the EU, the US and even India — quantum computing is attracting all the big players, triggering a gold rush of sorts. Here’s a guide to understanding the complex phenomenon that has the potential to transform life and work in unimaginable ways.
Have you come across any quantum computing jokes lately? If you haven’t, here’s one. What’s the gender of a quantum computer? Know the answer? If you don’t, here it is: It’s “non-binary”. Clueless? Well, we’ll explain in a bit.
But before we do that, did you know that Google has just announced a new Quantum AI campus in Santa Barbara, California? The search giant has plans to build a “useful, seamless quantum computer” within a decade. By 2029, to be precise. Google feels the time has come to build a quantum computer as it will help solve many of the gigantic problems humanity faces today. A global state of chaos, confusion and calamity demands a futuristic and holistic leap in the ways of the world and many hope quantum computing may prove to be one such leap.
But what’s quantum computing all about?
Quantum computing processes large chunks of data with great speed and efficiency. Obviously, this data is collected from several sources, in various forms — numbers, text, video, images, audio and more. Quantum computing analyzes the data for insights that might help solve issues at a (larger) scale that was not possible earlier.
For instance, quantum computing can examine massive amounts of data on accidents (thousands of hours of CCTV footage, weather reports on the days accidents occur, and other contextual information) and process them in a matter of seconds to come up with functionally useful insights that could help avert accidents in the geographies analysed. Clearly, this helps save enormous amounts of labour, time and other resources as quantum computing does the work with miraculous precision and super fast.
But does this mean quantum computing will replace traditional computing? Quantum computers won’t replace the role classical computers play in regular computing tasks such as email, spreadsheets and desktop publishing. The intention is to be the tool to solve more complex problems. So there is no clash.
The possible benefits cover a wide spectrum of sectors: finance, intelligence, drug design, military affairs, aerospace designing, utilities (nuclear fusion), polymer design, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data search, and digital manufacturing.
The evolution of quantum computing
In 1981, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, eminent physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman proposed a basic model for a quantum computer that would help the advancement of quantum systems. Almost 10 years later in 1994, a significant development came into being with an algorithm that was created to change the view on quantum computing, Shor’s algorithm by renowned American mathematician Peter Shor. This algorithm could perform mathematical operations on large numbers faster than any algorithm on traditional machines.
Two years later, Lov Grover, an Indian-American computer scientist, came up with a quantum database algorithm that could solve internet search problems with 4x speed as compared to the pre-existing search algorithm. In 1997, IBM’s computer Deep Blue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue could examine 200 million moves every second.
A working quantum computer came into being in 1998. This started the technological race in the field of quantum computing. The movement saw no significant change for at least 20 years until 2017 when IBM came up with commercially usable quantum computers, raising the competitive bar to another level. Soon, in 2019, Google claimed a breakthrough in quantum computing. It said it achieved quantum supremacy, which meant a quantum computer could now solve a problem that a traditional computer would find impossible to calculate.
Big players, big investments
Computers, mobile phones and medical imaging, quantum technology has transformed life in every possible way one can imagine. The untapped potential of this lures investors. The quantum computing market is projected to reach about $65 billion by 2030 from just $507 million in 2019. Superpowers such as China and the US have been heavily investing in this field. In fact, China claims it has made a quantum computing system that is 10 billion times faster than Google’s Sycamore.
In October 2018, the European Commission launched a programme with a budget of €1 billion ($1.22 billion) for quantum science researchers over ten years. The development of a framework programme was announced by German chancellor Angela Merkel with a budget of €2 billion ($2.5 billion) for the innovation programme. India is no exception to the quantum gold rush. The Union budget of 2020-21 allocated Rs 8,000 crore for quantum computing over five years.
Several private sector companies have also been investing in quantum computing, such as Atos Quantum, EDF and Total along with tech giants such as Google, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft. The Canadian company D-Wave, has also made a significant development as it unveiled the latest generation of quantum computers last year.
The benefits from quantum computing tech can be innumerable. Here’s a quick glance at them.
Quantum computing can boost AI. With artificial intelligence all set to transform each segment of society, quantum computing can supply it with additional computing power. This can result in immense changes; it can help AI systems “think for themselves”, for one. It can also enhance cybersecurity as a key feature of quantum computing is the factorisation of huge numbers into primes, which forms the basis of online security.
Quantum technology will facilitate complex computer modelling of aeronautical eventualities. This can help aviation in a big way, improving the smooth routing and scheduling of aircraft. This can bring in great commercial benefits in terms of time and costs.
In medical research, quantum computers can help drastically reduce the time taken for the research and development of drugs. Today, it takes pharmaceutical firms ‘decades and billions’ to get a brand-new drug and bring it to market. Improving the front-end of the process with quantum computers can dramatically cut costs and time to market, repurpose pre-approved drugs more easily for new applications, and empower computational chemists to make discoveries faster that could lead to cures for a range of diseases.
Quantum computing’s applications in all industries make it uncertain to predict in what ways it can change our world. But change it will. And we know for sure that the state of quantum supremacy is inevitable. The enormity of its scope can be understood by the fact that the world’s most influential companies and governments are so bullish about it.
Now, back to our joke. Why we make fun of quantum computing and call its ‘gender’ non-binary? Well, the answer lies in the peculiar way quantum computing works. As we all know now, a quantum computer uses quantum bits or qubits as the base of all the information it processes. These are different from your regular ‘bits’, where data is captured as 1s or 0s. Here, a suitably complex process called superposition enables the data to exist as 1s and 0s simultaneously. This ‘multistate’ character makes, some argue, quantum computing a non-binary affair.
Hence the joke.