The promise and challenge of quantum computing

What would a quantum computer do and why do we need it?

What is quantum computing?

Scientists and engineers have understood the revolutionary potential of quantum computing for decades. But what would a quantum computer do and why do we need it? Aren’t today’s computers powerful enough to handle even the biggest task? Not really… There are important calculations that even the fastest non-quantum supercomputer will never be able to crack— e.g., breaking complex, long encryption codes or predicting weather patterns with adequate precision.

Computer engineers have already created rudimentary quantum computing chips, i.e., linked atomic structures, with each bit/atom (aka qubit) readable as either a zero or one–and at varying increments between the two–at the same time. Each qubit holds at least twice the information of a regular bit, with such compression that a small, stable quantum device would be unimaginably powerful, able, e.g., to solve parallel problems at the same time. Paradoxically, they would not need to be faster in the conventional sense to achieve vastly more efficient and powerful processing. Believe it or not, a fully functional quantum computer would be able to solve problems in a week or less that would take billions of years for current generation supercomputers to complete.

The biggest tech players are in a race to find solutions

Google, IBM, Microsoft and HP are fast at work applying different strategies to bring quantum computers to market because of their great potential for generating profit. Engineers have already created circuits using small numbers of atoms. The long-term challenge is to progressively increase the stability and size of these circuits. Those at the forefront of this research have already achieved the manipulation of as many as 10 atoms at a time by freezing (down to near absolute zero in some labs) and then manipulating them with lasers. This is to control for heat-induced vibration and other variables that easily disrupt connectivity at his extreme micro level.

However, a completely functional quantum computer would require the integration of approximately a million atoms. The greatest hope is that future research will reveal subtle nuances in the laws of physics that will lay the foundation for necessary future breakthroughs.

Possible applications/benefits

Quantum computing could–

  • Speed up the development of drugs; improve chemical industry manufacturing; desalinate seawater; and even suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to curb climate change.
  • Result in the invention of room temperature superconductors that would be impervious to power drain during electrical transmission.
  • Handle problems of image and speech recognition, and provide real-time language translation.
  • Greatly enhance big data processing from sensors, medical records and stock fluctuations.
  • And generate many other similarly important applications not yet imaginable.

A warning: It’s critical that ‘friendly’ nations/global players develop quantum computing first. If we don’t, all our high security encryption will become transparent to malicious hackers. And when enemies inevitably develop that technology, we’ll need it, in turn, to develop cryptography sophisticated enough to block attacks to our infrastructure. Unfortunately, our current computer security systems are already failing at that task.

Many experts say that we’ll never need quantum computing for everyday applications. 
So, for now, at least, it appears quantum computers will run in the background, accessible via the Internet–or within large corporations, dedicated to the serious calculations required in breakthrough technologies we can only dream of now.

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