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Making Sense of Quantum Computing

Making Sense of Quantum Computing

Introduction

Imagine that there is one book in a vast library with a red ‘X’ marked within its pages. How would you go about retrieving this very book?

Much like human logic, today’s conventional computers would read every book in the library, one by one, and page by page to eventually locate the red ‘X’. Quantum computing technology, on the other hand, would be capable of reading every book in the library, all at once.

Consequently, the prospect of using technologies that can surpass physical limits prove to be extremely promising.

Quantum computing is one trend that is ready to leap out of the lab and become a regular component of many businesses. But how it will affect business as usual? How can leadership best discharge their responsibilities considering this preeminent technology?

Beyond Moore's Law

Since the 1960s, the power of computer processing continues to grow exponentially; allowing computers to get smaller and more powerful at the same time. But this process is about to meet its physical limits. Computer parts are fast-approaching the size of an atom. To understand why this is a problem, we should clear up some basics.

A computer is made up of very simple components doing very simple things. Much like our own neurobiology, these components represent data, the means of processing data, and its control mechanisms.

Computer chips—or circuit chips—contain basic modules which contain logic gates, which contain transistors.

Source: Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell YouTube Channel

A transistor is the simplest form of a data processor in computers. In short, it is basically a switch that blocks or opens the way for information coming through. This information is made up of bits; which are set to either ‘0’ or ‘1’.

All our computers’ varied abilities are produced by manipulating these bits using simple operations like ANDOR, and NOT, which are called logic gates. By doing so billions of times per second in billions of places at once, they keep our world humming along in the manner to which we have become accustomed. 

In contrast, a quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits. Based on a principle called quantum superposition, these qubits can have a value of ‘0’, ‘1’, or both ‘0 AND 1’ at the same time. Ergo, this capability allows quantum computers to solve certain types of complex problems that are unmanageable for classical computers.

The power of qubits is that they scale exponentially. A two-qubit machine allows you to do four calculations at once. A three-qubit machine can do eight calculations. A four-qubit machine gives you 16 calculations, all simultaneously. A 300-qubit computer can do more calculations than there are atoms in the universe!

Realistically speaking, however, a quantum computer with a mere 50 qubits would outperform the most powerful supercomputers in the world today. More specifically, they represent 10,000,000,000,000,000 numbers — an amount a traditional computer would need a memory on the petabyte-scale to store.

Geordie Rose, founder of D-Wave Systems, asserted that the number of qubits has doubled every year to date. Officially dubbed as Rose’s Law, this is nearly twice the speed of Moore’s Law.

Only now, are we beginning to realise the full potential of quantum computing, and yet the race to reign supreme in this field is longstanding.

Source: 33rd Square, Rose’s Law for Quantum Computers

The vast and exciting applications of quantum

“Quantum computation is a distinctively new way of harnessing nature. It will be the first technology that allows useful tasks to be performed in collaboration between parallel universes.” David Deutsch, physicist at University of Oxford

The implications of true quantum computing at scale are of staggering impact to society today:

  • Medicine
  • By 2003, the Human Genome Project ushered in a new era of medicine whereby treatments could be designed to suit a particular genetic makeup. These new treatments have been especially effective in targeted cancer therapies. Although we have made major advancements, our newfound knowledge has also revealed our limitations. Unlocking the secrets of DNA exposed how little we know about the proteins it codes for, just as early successes with targeted therapies have shown us how much more we can achieve by working with complete genomes rather than just isolated markers in our chromosomes.

Unfortunately, conventional computers lack the capacity to perform these tasks well, but early indications are that quantum computers can close the gap. Scientists at Harvard have found that quantum computers will allow us to map proteins much as we do genes today

  • Quantum computing will also allow us to model complex molecular interactions at an atomic level. This will be particularly important for medical research and drug discovery. Soon, we’ll be able to model all 20,000+ proteins encoded in the human genome and start to simulate their interactions with models of existing drugs or new drugs that haven’t been invented yet.

Based on the analysis of these drug interactions, we’ll be able to find cures for previously incurable diseases and hopefully accelerate the time to market for new drugs. Using quantum computer simulations will be the way we design and choose our next generations of drugs and cancer cures.

  • Machine Learning
  • Much of machine learning is about “pattern recognition.” Algorithms crunch large datasets to find signals in the noise, and the goal is to maximize the number of comparisons you make between data to find the best models to describe that data. With quantum computing, these processing orders can be done more effectively than with classical computing.

Quantum computing will allow you to compare much, much more data in parallel, simultaneously, and all permutations of that data, to discover the best patterns that describe it. This will lead to fundamentally more powerful forms of AI much more quickly than we expect. Expect quantum computing to cause a positive inflection point (upward) for the speed at which the world develops AI (which, by the way, is why Google is working so hard on it).

  • Making facets of artificial intelligence such as machine learning much more powerful when data sets can be too big, such as searching images or video.
  • Chemistry (and Climate Change)
  • Worried about the climate crisis? Wondering what we can do about it? Quantum computers may be our newest tool to understand what is going on and to fight it. They will allow us to unlock “simulation-driven” solutions, perhaps design new catalysts that capture carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into new and valuable products at low cost and energy use.
  • Next week’s weather. Mathematical models of big, dynamical systems like global weather have to be greatly simplified in order to fit in even a supercomputer. Accuracy suffers.
  • Material Science & Engineering
  • Because we can simulate atomic interactions, we’ll explore and invent entirely new, better materials. We might find better superconductors, better magnets, materials that will allow us to create much higher energy density batteries, and so on. Since 2011, the U.S. federal government has granted over $250 million to the Materials Genome Initiative in an effort to “discover, manufacture, and deploy advanced materials twice as fast, at a fraction of the cost.”
  • Biochemistry & Energy Systems
  • Scientists believe that much of the world is built atop quantum systems. Processes like photosynthesis, for example, are likely dependent on quantum mechanical systems. Thus, as we look to the natural world for inspiration to build better energy systems or stronger materials, we’ll only fully realize their potential when we can model these processes with quantum computers. This will lead to many advances and discoveries across the board.
  • Supply Chain & Logistics
  • Finding the optimal path across global system of systems for ultra-efficient logistics and supply chains, such as optimising fleet operations for deliveries during the holiday season.
  • Financial Services
  • Finding new ways to model financial data and isolating key global risk factors to make better investments.
  • Cloud Security
  • Making cloud computing more secure by using laws of quantum physics to enhance private data safely.
  • Neuroscience and AI
  • Many research directions in advanced AI are compute-limited. Harnessing quantum computers’ ability to solve new kinds of models and compute in an exponentially large vector space has the potential to unlock a new generation of intelligent systems.

Quantum Supremacy: The new Space Race

Surpassing the limits set by conventional computing has certainly had its challenges.

One of them is to ramp up a measly handful of qubits from less than 20 to something that can begin to rival our best classical supercomputers on those trickier tasks.

That number? About 50-odd, a figure that's often referred to in rather rapturous terms as ‘quantum supremacy.’

The Quantum Supremacy timeline

  • 2011
  • Through the development of quantum annealing, D-Wave introduces their product called D-Wave One; the first commercially available quantum computer
  • 2012
  • UNSW made first silicon quantum transistor. Single atom in silicon. Professor Michelle Simmons, UNSW Centre for Quantum Computing Technology
  • The world’s first quantum computing software company, 1QB Information Technologies (1Qbit), founded
  • 2014
  • Scientists transfer data by quantum teleportation over a distance of 10 feet (3.048 meters) with zero percent error rate, a vital step towards a quantum Internet
  • 2016
  • Berkeley-based start-up Rigetti Computing works on designs for quantum-powered chips to perform previously impossible feats that advance chemistry and machine learning. They aim to ultimately set up a quantum-powered cloud computing service, where customers pay to run problems on the company’s superconducting chips.
  • 2017
  • IBM unveils 17-qubit quantum computer—and a better way of benchmarking it. They also announced an initiative to build IBM Q—the world’s first commercially available universal quantum computing systems and services delivered via the IBM Cloud platform
  • Microsoft reveals an unnamed quantum programming language, integrated with Visual Studio. Programs can be executed locally on a 32-qubit simulator, or a 40-qubit simulator on Azure.
  • At the 4th International Conference on Quantum Technology held in Moscow around August of this year, Google were preparing to give a lecture on a 49-qubit quantum computer they have in the works. A morning talk presented by Harvard University's Mikhail Lukin, however, upstaged that evening's event with a small announcement of his own – his team of American and Russian researchers had successfully tested a 51-qubit device, setting a landmark in the race for quantum supremacy.
Source: D-Wave Systems Inc.

But are all these expectations realistic?

Every emerging technology has its pros and cons when it comes to scaling and reliability.

However, a significant problem with quantum computing will be how to make the system as reliable and error-free as possible. While classical computing can duplicate processes to reduce the risk of mistakes, the probabilistic nature of qubits makes this impossible for quantum calculations.

This is not to mention the question on how to connect a number of units together to form ever larger processors.

Which methods will address these concerns best in the long run is anybody's guess.

"There are several platforms that are very promising, and they are all entering the regime where it is getting interesting, you know, system sizes you cannot simulate with classical computers," Harvard University’s Mikhail Lukin said to Himanshu Goenka from International Business Times.

“But I think it is way premature to pick a winner among them. Moreover, if we are thinking about truly large scales, hundreds of thousands of qubits, systems which will be needed for some algorithms, to be honest, I don’t think anyone knows how to go there.”

The implications of quantum on boards and leadership

Boards all over the world have witnessed astonishing changes in business models over the past five years.

I think everybody is certain that the next five years will see even more drastic change.

However, the power of classical computers isn’t accelerating to the same extent they once did.

Quantum computing is a potential source of a new technology that contains the amazing explosion of different and new business models across the globe.

Boards need to understand the potential of how the new quantum computing system can continue to reshape business in ways we cannot contemplate currently.

Author(s)

Sasha Jurac
Sasha Jurac
John Colvin, Sasha Jurac

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