Even if the word “quantum” doesn’t immediately scare you away, a quantum computer still sounds like a wacky concept grounded in science fiction, not reality.
But recent breakthroughs in the field suggest these crazy fast computers might be coming sooner than we think.
And we have a lot of reasons to be excited about their arrival.
Ray Johnson, a board member at the startup quantum computing company QxBranch, one of many companies working to move quantum computing from the lab into the real world, explained some of those reasons to Business Insider.
The lure of quantum computers is their ability to solve nearly unsolvable problems — problems so complicated they would take today’s computers decades to solve. In theory, a quantum computer would be able to solve those problems before you finish your morning coffee.
Regular computers that we use every day use “bits” that store information as a 1 or a 0 — and a string of ones and zeroes represents a specific number or letter.
On the flip side, quantum computers take advantage of a really weird phenomenon in physics where tiny particles can exist in multiple places at once. Instead of using bits that only have two “settings,” they use something called quantum bits, or “qubits,” which have an extra setting — they can exist as a 1, or a 0, or both at the same time.
So a regular computer made of two bits can encode information in only one of four possible combinations: 00, 01, 10, 11. A quantum computer can hold all four of those combinations at once. This lets them handle exponentially more information than regular computers.
Another way to think about the difference between regular and quantum computers is to think about a version of the famous “travelling salesman” problem in mathematics. In the problem, you are a salesman planning a road trip and you want to figure out which route through 10 different cities will be the cheapest (gas-wise) and fastest.
A regular computer would have to calculate the length of all those routes separately and then compare the results to find the winner. A quantum computer could figure out the length of all the routes at the same time because qubits can process lots of information all at once — getting to the answer much faster.
There are a few hurdles before we start seeing quantum computers everywhere.
Currently, these computers have to be kept in a supercold environment and even the slightest disturbance is enough to make their delicate state collapse. However, in a major breakthrough in March, Google figured out a way to make quantum computers more stable which has some scientists saying we could be halfway to fully-functioning quantum computers. Google, along with NASA and IBM, is hard at work to make this happen.
And when they’re finally here, quantum computers have the potential to revolutionise entire industries.
Johnson, who is also former CTO of Lockheed Martin, explained that the computers we have right now are really good at doing things that humans are bad at. For example, humans can’t remember 10 million numbers, put them in a spreadsheet, and then quickly perform calculations with those numbers. We leave that to regular computers.
A quantum computer would not be able to do this any faster than a regular computer. There’s no better or faster way to add up a set of numbers.
Where quantum computers really have the potential to shine is bridging the gap between what computers do well and what humans do well, Johnson said.
Humans are really good at wading through complex settings and picking things out from those settings — like finding Waldo in the crowd of “Where’s Waldo?” Our brains do this naturally and with a lot less effort than a computer could. Quantum computers, however, could be programmed to act more like human brains.
That’s because, like humans, quantum computers can learn from experience. For example, if a quantum computer is running a program that keeps messing up on a certain task, a quantum computer could actually tweak the code of that program itself and stop the mistakes from happening in the future.
This concept is called machine learning — it’s similar to how your email service can learn which messages to put in your spam folder and which ones to allow through to your inbox, but much more sophisticated.
The machine learning of quantum computers could help us do a lot of things much faster and much more efficiently.
For example, quantum computers could streamline our aerospace and military and defence systems. With all the satellites we have now, we are constantly collecting tons of images and video. And all that data is far too much for anyone to sort through it all, so a lot of it gets discarded and never looked at, Johnson said. Especially because today’s computers aren’t great at quickly recognising and picking things out from huge data sets.
A quantum computer could sort through that giant mountain of data much faster and point humans to which images and videos we should take a closer look at and which ones we can just toss aside.
This same capability of quantum computers could also lead to safer vehicles. Quantum computing could help make a semi-automated car (not quite as exciting as NASA’s driverless cars) that could do things like help alert us when a ball rolls into the street and we need to brake.
This is just barely scratching the surface of how quantum computers could change industries.
Johnson thinks we’ll see more small breakthroughs in the next couple years, and significant, game-changing breakthroughs in five years.
A quantum computer in every home is still a long way off. But the key to making that happen will be creating an easy-to-use interface that makes it possible for everyone — rather than just computer scientists in a lab — to use a quantum computer. That’s what QxBranch will be working on.
Industry and commercial applications for quantum computing, on the other hand, don’t seem that far away.