Modern physics incorporated many discoveries and theories and gave birth to some of the world’s most celebrated works, from Marie Curie’s radioisotopes to Vera Rubin’s Dark Matter. This dive into the universe and what makes it, well, itself, is fascinating, but for the sake of this article, I’d like to highlight one critical piece of modern science: Max Planck’s Quantum Theory. This theory is the basis of quantum computing (QC), this article’s focal point.
Quantum Theory… Sounds Familiar
Quantum theory, alongside Einstein’s theory of relativity, forms the basis of modern physics; the principles are increasingly being applied in areas such as quantum optics and quantum chemicals. In fact, this theory is arguably the most successful one out there.
Simply put, this theory describes the smallest things that make up our universe: molecules, atoms, subatomic particles (i.e., electrons), etc. As a result, this theoretical basis of modern physics explains the nature and behavior of matter and energy on those levels. However, when you reach that scale, some things don’t make sense, and physicists don’t like that. Today, we have two significant interpretations of the quantum theory:
- The Copenhagen Interpretation: The theory holds that a particle is whatever it is measured to be (e.g., a wave) but cannot be assumed to have specific properties or even exist until it is measured. And now we have the measuring problems.
- The Many-Worlds Theory: This interpretation assumes that the wavefunction is true. When you measure a particle that is in many places at once, the particle turns up at all those different places but in different versions of reality. So, this interpretation holds that many worlds exist in parallel with one another in the same space and time as our own.
Fun fact, Stephen Hawking preferred the second theory.
How Did We Go from There to Computing?
Quantum computers solve problems differently than classical computers. The main difference is that the former can be in several states simultaneously, while the latter can only exist in one at a time. Think supercomputer but on steroids. In case you didn’t get the whole picture, a supercomputer is tens of thousands of processors performing billions and trillions of calculations or computations per second, and QC exceeds that by runs! That is insane!
The Keys to Understanding Quantum Computing
The main building blocks of classical computers are known as bits, and those of quantum computers are referred to as quantum bits (qubits). Both work in entirely different ways. A bit is akin to switches that can either be zero or one (binary code). And when we measure a bit, we get back to the state in which it is currently. The latter, however, is an entirely different story. For the sake of what follows, let’s say that a qubit is an arrow suspended in a sphere, the Bloch sphere.
The arrow would have the option of pointing up (0) or down (1) and pointing in any other direction. Its state is then a combination of 0 and 1. Now, when we measure the qubit, there is a probability of getting either or depending on the position of the arrow. This ability to be in multiple states simultaneously until the measurement is called superposition.
In a traditional computer, the bits are independent of one another; the state of one bit does not influence in any way, shape, or form the state of another. In QC, on the other hand, the qubits can be entangled with one another. The entangled qubits become one sizeable quantum state together. Confused? Yeah, so was I. let me elaborate.
Let’s say we are looking at two independent qubits, each in a different state. The odds are different for each one. When we entangle them, however, those probabilities drastically change as the odds are distributed between all possible states: 00, 01, 10, and 11. Now, because they are entangled, changing the position of one immediately affects the other and, by extension, the probabilities.
None of the above would have mattered in a quantum computer had it not been for interference. The Bloch sphere is only a visualization of a qubit. In actuality, the qubit is more accurately described by a quantum wavefunction. With that said, in QC, you have a bunch of qubits entangled together. So, their combined wavefunctions are added to give the overall wavefunction, reflecting the quantum computer’s state. This addition is interference.
Theoretically, linked qubits can accelerate calculations that would typically take millions of years by taking advantage of interference between the particles’ wave-like quantum states. So, QC can solve problems in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cryptography that are currently unsolvable by conventional computers. And according to The Quantum Insider, there are more than 500 companies, national labs, and government agencies worldwide presently developing the technology, including but not limited to:
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- The Los Alamos National Laboratory
That Sounds Fancy, But What’s the Use?
While it doesn’t have commercial use for you and me, quantum computing will undoubtedly, revolutionize the world as we know it. Keep in mind that the technology is still very rudimentary. Nevertheless, the first industries to reap these rewards first are the pharmaceutical and cyber security sectors.
Today, drug development is tedious, from discovery to getting FDA approval. It could take years before a drug becomes suitable for public consumption. The quantum computer will solve specific computational tasks exponentially faster than today’s traditional computers. The entire drug value chain—from discovery to development to registration and post-marketing—could benefit from adding QC once fully developed. Nevertheless, experts expect its primary value to be in research and development.
Our current cyber security measures will not withstand an attack from a quantum computer. If the technology were to come to fruition, all hands would be on deck to fortify all cyber security measures known to men and then figure out better ones that better match. Our data is secured through encryption keys (algorithms) based on mathematical formulas. And compared to QC’s capabilities, they will be a child’s play to solve.
At small scales, physical matter exhibits properties of both particles and waves (Quantum Theory). Now, quantum computing takes advantage of this bewildering and unique behavior to solve problems that are too complex for classical computing. As a result, research and development that typically take years, even decades, would be efficiently done in days. Consequently, this ability will boost the pharmaceutical industry and light a fire under the cyber security sector.
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