Last week Google announced it had achieved ‘Quantum Supremacy.’ Not a hybrid of two famous movie franchises, but a breakthrough Quantum computer able to perform a function that a conventional supercomputer cannot. They claimed their Quantum machine did something in 200 seconds that would take a supercomputer 10,000 years.
Quantum supremacy. Not just better, a fundamentally different league, able to do calculations that even a World class supercomputer cannot. And supercomputers are typically equal in processing power to around 100,000 conventional computers. So, are we entering a new age of computing? WIll we all have quantum computers in our pockets this time next decade? What even is quantum computing anyway? And how does it work? And what does it potentially mean for our societies, built on and dependent on computers, as they are? It’s still too early to say.
I recall a company called Beyond Quantum being part of the 2nd cohort to come out of Barclays TechStars. This was five years ago. Beyond Quantum consisted of two guys who’s CVs included NASA as employer, and they were the ‘wild card’ in the cohort. The function of their startup was to advise companies on future proofing their systems against quantum disruption. To put it in context, a Bank, with all it’s encryption and security, would last about five seconds against a quantum computer hack. It’s like building a super secure safe, then along comes a thief who can walk through walls. Everything you ever did in security becomes obsolete. Game over.
That’s one concern, regarding Quantum computers. If one is sufficiently developed to take on tasks such as de encryption, and if it is put to such use, it could be very problematic for a great many companies and infrastructures. And governments. In fact, I’ve always thought that if, when, some agency does have quantum de encryption capability, the last thing they’ll do is announce it in the papers. They’d never admit to it, never even reveal it. Just use it, silently, and acquire the secrets of every government and company on Earth. Maybe some agency already has one. How would we know?
Will one day quantum computers be in the shops? I doubt it, actually. For one thing, at least for now, they need to operate at very nearly absolute zero. The kind of temperature found in deep dark space. These machines are extremely delicate and sensitive to any external stimulus, heat from electricity passing through wires, vibrations, light, these are not desktop systems. Not yet at least. Mind you, forty years ago, computers were room sized and less powerful than a tamagotchi, so who can say. The principal of how it works has been achieved. The mechanics of making it work better, and more robustly, that’s a never ending journey most likely. Also, there’s some tasks Quantum is better at than others, simulations of real world things, for example, predicting weather, where the number of possible influences and factors is virtually infinite. Conventional computers operate in binary, 1 and 0, either off or on. Quantum uses superposition, off and on, at the same time. The cumulative effect of chips able to do this exponentially increases the power of the system. The Google machine had 53 QBits running out of 54. One was broken. And the machine solved a problem it would take ten thousand years for a Supercomputer to solve. Theoretically, a 1miillion QBit machine would be required for mainstream use, at which point it’s almost limitless, ideally suited to simulating the real world, which also operates in a non binary way. Quantum VR might be rather convincing.
Perhaps in a future not too far from now, our computers and iPhone 20’s and whatever other tech we have will be connected via 10G to a quantum cloud, able to run every single algorithmic and computational task for all of us, with change to spare. They might also be very good at coordinating our smart cities, autonomous vehicles, and monitoring the health and wellbeing of us poor humans.
Of course, there’s also the issue of AQi , artificial quantum intelligence. Today, it’s just a few lines on Wikipedia, and a field of theoretical research. But given that IBM, Google, NASA, and the other players in the Quantum Race, are also heavily into Ai, it’s only going to be a matter of time before the two merge. Good luck humanity. You might well need it.
Published in the Yorkshire Post newspaper