Quantum computing. The term has not yet entered the mainstream of everyday prose. If you’re anything like me, you are probably only vaguely familiar with what it means and therefore its implications. Not happy with my own naivety in this area, I recently set out to gain a better understanding of quantum computing, and two other new subject areas—blockchain and big data, and what these emerging technologies might mean to the business landscape over the next five to 10 years. With your patience, I will focus on the title subject in this issue and the other two in future editions.
Computing as we currently know it is carried out within a micro-processor. The power of these processors has literally doubled every two years since the 1970s thanks to science’s ingenuity in making transistors (the little chips within a processor) ever smaller. The smart phone you carry today will have literally millions of transistors. But the laws of numbers and physics mean this miniaturization is reaching limits. And with it, a limit to computing power.
Quantum computing takes a different approach to the power of crunching zeros and ones. Essentially, it depends on the use of a ‘qubit’. A qubit allows computing to move from a mechanical state of one or zero to a ‘superposition’ of the two states. Sorry, I know that’s a mouthful and I am not sure I truly understand it myself. Think of it this way—it is transformational to the way computing is executed. According to an article published on Techradar.com (January 2010), “because a quantum computer essentially operates as a massive parallel processing machine, it can work on millions of calculations simultaneously (whereas a traditional computer works on one calculation at a time, in sequence).”
This is not about simply increasing the power of computing (which it does), but about doing so at such an incredible scale that computing and computers will be able to carry out tasks that were never before contemplated as even being possible.
I can guess what you’re probably thinking: this would be a lot easier to comprehend if you could put it in context.In other words, “give us some examples, John—provide examples!” How about this, for a start: quantum computing will allow researchers to simulate how molecules behave. This field is reserved today only for the most powerful supercomputers and even with their horsepower, such simulations are limited to very narrow areas and can be imprecise.
Quantum computing will take on quantum tasks. It is quite conceivable we could discover how to capture carbon from the atmosphere (and do so economically), or render current fertilizers redundant by determining how to unleash microbes already present in the soil to improve growing metrics. In healthcare, the implications could be similarly far-reaching—perhaps even make current drug discovery and treatment methods obsolete.
Think of the opportunity in this way … the steam engine powering locomotives was the precursor to the reciprocating engine which powers cars and trucks and the jet engine which powers airplanes. In the same way that railways revolutionized transport, so has computing power changed our lives.
Quantum computing is that next generation of computing power and is very likely to have that same global transformational impact. The revolution in transportation required new ways of thinking in order for business to appreciate the opportunity presented. Similarly, quantum computing will require new ways of thinking about how to solve problems we never contemplated as even being problems capable of being solved.
To continue the analogy, as the transportation revolution destroyed the business model of many companies, it was responsible for the creation of whole new industries. There is almost no field of endeavor immune to the sort of transformational change capable of being inflicted upon us by the unleashing of such a new breed of computing power.
An article on theguardian.com (Has the Age of Quantum Computing Arrived?, published May 2016), said that: “In areas such as artificial intelligence and cryptography, it’s thought that quantum computing will transform the landscape, perhaps bringing about the breakthrough that will enable machines to ‘think’ with the nuance and interpretative skill of humans.”
Exciting, yes—but scary too.