Quantum Computing – The Story So Far

We’ve come a long way since Richard Feynman discussed simulating physics on a computer

In May 2011, D-Wave Systems became the first company in the world to sell quantum computers after over a decade of research. These pioneering machines have since been bought by Lockheed Martin, NASA and Google. Now, other tech giants are getting in on the action. IBM, for instance, plans to release a quantum computing system for Internet users later this year. Quantum computing has long been touted as a technology that will cause fundamental and universal disruption, and recent advancements suggest that this could be well underway. But what exactly is it, and how will it change computing?

Why is quantum computing important?

Conventional computers are pretty amazing. They can solve mathematical problems in seconds, store vast amounts of data and have incredible memory. In a regular computer, it takes eight basic units of information (bits) to store any number between zero and 256. In a quantum computer, however, 8 qubits (quantum bits) can store all of these numbers at the same time. Quantum computers are based on the principles of quantum theory, which focuses on the behaviour of atoms and protons. Quantum computing uses the power of physics to do far more than your average PC.

So, what can it do?

For scientific and academic institutions, a quantum computer would represent a research tool like no other, and would redefine the nature of experimentation by creating accurate simulations of essentially anything. For example, imagine simulating the growth of a pathogen in order to create the most effective medication, or a chemical reaction which could create new elements. Apply this to industry, and the possibilities really are endless. The problem is, according to director of the York Technology Hub for Quantum Communications and University of York Professor Tim Spiller, the machines we have today are “certainly not” quantum computers. The next step towards pure quantum computers is to build quality quantum processors. The Oxford led 2020 Processor project is currently working towards this aim. In theory, true quantum computing will come when enough processors can be connected together. New research into materials at Stanford University could also be instrumental in the further development of these systems, creating more powerful computer chips with cutting edge science.

How disruptive are quantum computers?

Until a true quantum computer is made, it’s difficult to predict how disruptive they will be. However, we know that they can facilitate complex virtual experiments that can’t be done on a regular computer, like modelling the behaviour of atoms and particles in high energy environments. Scientists will be able to test their hypotheses without any negative real world consequences before actually carrying them out. There are clearly countless industrial applications for this powerful, predictive technology. In manufacturing, quantum simulations could help to create better materials and designs. In healthcare, this could lead to improved drugs and treatments. Another key application outside of simulations is managing giant datasets. As data grows exponentially, this is an incredibly important task. Ironically, though, quantum computers are as much a problem as a solution for data because they’re so good at solving complex mathematical problems. Encryption, the software which protects our data, is essentially just that. This means that quantum computers could be used by hackers to access unprecedented amounts of information. The only way around this is to create better encryption (for instance, lattice based cryptography) that is far harder to infiltrate.

There are some serious considerations to be made surrounding the creation of functional quantum processors and computers, but it’s clear that the benefits greatly outweigh the threats. We can do so much with conventional computers that it’s almost impossible to comprehend the potential of quantum computing. Since the technology was first conceptualised, developers have been hindered by a lack of suitable materials, inadequate computer chips and general scepticism. However, 26 years down the line and research teams are edging closer to solving these problems. It’s uncertain whether it will be a tech giant, a university laboratory or a combination of both that will crack quantum computing. Either way, D-Wave, the original quantum computer company, will need to learn to share the limelight.

How could a quantum processor or computer help your business? How long will it be before the development of functional, pure quantum computers? Which other industries could benefit from quantum computing, and how? Share your thoughts.