Computers and microprocessors have become ubiquitous over the past decade. Your smart phone, your television set and possibly even your coffee maker has some form of computing chip inside of it allowing it to carry out its functions. Computing power has increased exponentially over the past few decades. Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits will double every 18 months, has been true for the last few decades. However, computer technology has advanced so rapidly in the past couple of years that transistors are rapidly the theoretical limit, the size of atoms. Scientists are trying to circumvent this issue through something known as ‘Quantum Computing’.
Classical computers, or computers we use today, have algorithms and software implemented through the usage of bits. There is a new type of computing that is being experimented with by various companies and research agencies around the world – quantum computing. Instead of bits, quantum computers use quantum bits – abbreviated as qubits. Unlike a bit that can represent either a 1 or a 0, an unobserved qubit can be in any proportion of both states at once (a superposition of those two states). Another interesting property exhibited by quantum particles is known as quantum entanglement. Each qubit is inherently linked to all other qubits in the system – no matter how far they are – such that an individual qubit reacts to a change in any other qubit’s state instantaneously.
Quantum computing is exciting because of these two unique properties. Similar to Schrödinger’s cat, unobserved qubits are in both two states at the same time (superposition), however, as soon as we try to measure a qubit, it collapses into a fixed state – a 1 or a 0 – thereby influencing the other qubits as well (quantum entanglement). Owing to this property, a quantum computer could carry out numerical calculations much faster than a traditional computer. A given set of 4 bits can represent 1 of the 16 possible bit combinations at any given time, however, a set of 4 qubits can represent all 16 combinations at the same time.
Fun fact, a 300-qubit quantum computer could run more calculations at a time than there are atoms in the universe.
The potential advantages of quantum computing are huge – machine learning algorithms could be trained faster, neural networks could be made deeper and quantum computers could also be used for cryptanalysis. Google, NASA and a consortium of universities launched The Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab in May 2013 to investigate the potential of quantum computing in the field of artificial intelligence. The Lab will use D-Wave Two, the most advanced commercially available quantum computer, built by D-Wave.
Fun fact, “Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported that its 29-petaflop supercomputer, Cori, had simulated the output of (just) 45 qubits”.
Huge arithmetic speed bump aside, there are many challenges associated with harnessing the full potential of quantum computing on a commercial-scale. The most major one is the difficulty associated with manipulating qubits to carry out numerical calculations. Another drawback of quantum computing is that even though it makes arithmetical calculations much faster, other types of applications do not benefit a lot from the new technology. Currently, some quantum computers need the qubits to be cooled to 20 mK to ensure quantum coherence.
The future for quantum computing is bright. If all the issues associated with it are overcome, quantum computing could allow us to solve problems that were practically infeasible with classical computers. Companies such as Google and IBM are investing heavily into the field with the hope that the dawn of new technologies such as artificial intelligence will be supported by a system of fully functioning quantum computers.
If you want to learn more about quantum superposition, quantum entanglement and quantum computing in general, check out this video by Kurzgesagt.
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