Quantum computing is an emerging field of technology that holds the promise of revolutionizing the way we solve complex problems, from cryptography to drug discovery. Despite the enormous potential of quantum computers, however, the development of practical, scalable quantum computers has proved to be a significant challenge.
But, as the rate of technological advancement increases around us exponentially, it seems that we are strikingly close to a breakthrough. Below, get caught up on the current state of quantum computing, and discover the field’s estimation for unlocking the next wave of computational innovation.
What is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computing is a type of computing that relies on quantum mechanics, the fundamental theory that describes the behavior of matter and energy at the atomic and subatomic scales. In contrast to classical computing, which uses bits to represent information, quantum computing uses quantum bits or qubits to store and process information. Essentially, instead of each basic unit of the computer having two options to toggle between (0 and 1), each unit has a continuous number of possible states that can be measured and categorized.
Qubits have unique properties that allow them to exist in multiple states at once, a phenomenon known as superposition. When the qubits are measured by a system, the function then collapses into a single state, based on the probabilities of its superposition state. This enables a quantum computer to process a vast number of possibilities simultaneously. If you have two qubits, you can process four states at once, with three qubits, eight states, and so on, growing exponentially with each added qubit. This is a stark contrast to classical bits which can only process one state at a time.
Additionally, qubits can be entangled, meaning that the state of one qubit can affect the state of another, even if they are physically separated. These properties give quantum computers the potential to solve very certain types of problems much more accurately than classical computers.
It’s important to understand that quantum computers are not simply 'better' than traditional computers for all tasks. Instead, they are more powerful for certain types of calculations such as factoring large numbers, searching large databases, simulating quantum systems, and certain optimization problems. Traditional computers are still more efficient and practical for many of the tasks we use computers for now.
Why Does Quantum Computing Matter?
Quantum computers could be used in a wide variety of fields, and will likely be employed to perform sophisticated calculations across many disciplines. As the technology is currently understood, scientists predict that it will have the most significant effect on the fields of medicine, security, finance, and materials science.
With innovations in quantum computing, security will likely have the most obvious effect. The use of qubits in computing can make it significantly easier and faster to process both encryption and decryption. When hackers can utilize quantum computers, they’ll be able to break through complex security in a fraction of the time that it would traditionally take, rendering much current digital security and privacy essentially obsolete. Because of this, the field of cybersecurity will likely radically change as quantum computing becomes more available.
In addition, quantum computers will be better able to accurately and simultaneously simulate different possible permutations of atoms, molecules, and objects, which could help scientists develop new drugs, treatments, materials, and chemicals. With better models that more accurately reflect the real world, it will be more attainable to make breakthroughs via simulated spaces. With this new technology, scientists may also be able to gain new insights into fundamental laws of nature, physics, the universe, and all of reality.
But the potential for quantum computing’s effect isn’t isolated to science and technology. It has the potential to aid in optimization for a wide variety of fields including finance, math, and business. Any field that is currently touched by the use of computers may gain additional optimization from this new tech - which is, to say, almost all sectors.
Quantum computing is a rapidly developing field, and it is still too early to say for sure what its impact will be. However, it has the potential to revolutionize many fields and change the way we live and work.
Quantum Computing’s Current State:
The concept of quantum computing was first proposed by physicist Richard Feynman in 1982, but progress in the field has been slow due to the enormous technical challenges involved. However, recent advances in both hardware and software have led to significant progress toward the development of practical quantum computers.
Fortunately, in the last couple of decades, developments have begun to speed up. In 2011, D-Wave Systems released the first commercially available quantum computer, which contained a 128-qubit chipset. Although its usefulness was limited by the fact that it could only solve specific types of problems, There has been a significant increase in the number of research efforts aimed at developing practical quantum computers, and a small handful of research institutions are working with them and similar models.
In 2015, D-Wave was able to produce a version with 1000 qubits. In 2022, the company launched a quantum computer with 5,000 qubits. This most recent model, which is located in Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany, will be used to help innovate in the fields of energy, information, and bioeconomy.
But D-Wave isn’t the only innovator in the quantum field. In 2017, IBM unveiled the IBM Q System One, the first commercially available universal quantum computer. The Q System One has 20 qubits and is capable of performing simple quantum computations. Since then, several other companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Intel, have also made significant strides in developing practical quantum computers.
During the writing of this article, a notable quantum computing breakthrough occurred at Google. With news breaking that their newest prototype, a computer with 70 qubits called the Sycamore quantum computer, was able to outpace a number crunching process of the most powerful computer in the world - by 47 years. What would take the Frontier supercomputer 5 decades to calculate, the Sycamore was able to process in seconds.
What’s Currently Limiting Quantum Computing Advancements:
Several factors will affect the timeline for the commercialization of quantum computers. The most prominent, of course, is cost. We know how to build quantum machines, but the cost of doing so is currently only affordable by the most well-funded institutions. Though resources could technically be available for such initiatives across the globe, the scope of application and benefit isn’t yet fully realized, making an investment in such costly technology is only reasonable to the most forethinking governing bodies and universities. Plus, some organizations are waiting for the tech to improve to be more cost-effective, as ongoing innovations are actively driving the price down.
But cost isn’t the only limiting factor: there’s also hesitancy due to a collection of risks associated with the technology. As I mentioned earlier, security risks are some of the most apparent. If the wrong people can access quantum computing technology, they could use it to rapidly decrypt content from servers that were previously unfeasible to hack into. This technology, if not handled carefully, could result in damaging data breaches if institutions don’t put safeguards into place. Furthermore, it could become an avenue for cyberwarfare.
In addition, as is the case with most robust technological advancements, the application of quantum computing could potentially disrupt existing industries and lead to job loss - a concerning trend that could result in further economic inequality in our societies. We must tread carefully to transition our industries into the future, without leaving the working class behind it.
Despite the progress made so far, several challenges lie ahead before we can realize the full potential of quantum computing. One of the most significant challenges is the issue of quantum decoherence, which refers to the fact that qubits are highly sensitive to their environment and can quickly lose their quantum properties. To overcome this challenge, researchers are exploring a wide variety of approaches, including quantum annealing and the use of topological qubits. However, these approaches require significant technical expertise and are still very much so in the early stages of development.
There’s also the issue of maintenance. According to MIT, “Heat causes errors in the qubits that are the building blocks of a quantum computer, so quantum systems are typically kept inside refrigerators that keep the temperature just above absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit)”. It’s quite the energetically expensive feat to keep a room continuously at that temperature continuously. On top of the significant space, resources, and power needed to create a quantum computer, the continued use of such a machine has a high cost as well.
Finally, there's the issue of scalability. While current quantum computers can perform simple quantum computations, they are still a long way from being able to solve practical problems. To realize the full potential of quantum computing, we need to develop quantum computers with more qubits - and we need to decrease the cost to do so.
So, When Will Quantum Computing be Commonly Used?
The development of quantum computers is a complex and challenging endeavor, but there is a lot of progress being made. Likely, quantum computers will continue to be used in research in greater frequency, but it is still too early to say at what rate that will happen, or how soon quantum computers will bridge the gap between academic settings and general consumers.
Quantum computers are still in their early stages of development, and it is not clear when they will be available for purchase by non-researchers like us - let alone when they will be usable by non-tech enthusiasts. Most experts believe that it could be decades (or longer) before quantum computers are affordable and accessible to the general public.
But there’s hope: we might be able to benefit from quantum computing in our everyday lives much sooner than that, maybe even in 10-20 years. Instead of a quantum computer in every home or having to learn how to code in some sort of nasty qubit assembly equivalent, there’s real potential for companies to offer services powered by quantum computing that solve problems that were previously impossible or impractical to solve. Through the wonderful invention of cloud software, it’s likely we’ll be able to interface with quantum computers - without needing to worry about the maintenance of the machines ourselves. With this in mind I’m leaning towards optimism with this one, especially considering Google’s most recent breakthrough.
Of course, even the services may be horrendously expensive at first but, given current trends in the pricing of electronic devices, it will likely be a waiting game for the average consumer. A waiting game that, in fact, many of us alive today will survive to see.
While significant progress has been made toward the development of practical quantum computers, we are still a long way from realizing the full potential of this technology. The challenges of quantum decoherence, specialized hardware and software, and scalability will need to be overcome before quantum computing becomes a practical reality. Nonetheless, the progress made so far is promising, and the potential of quantum computing to revolutionize the way we solve complex problems makes it an exciting field to watch in the coming decades.