The potential of quantum computing has been hailed as revolutionary, capable of changing the way everything works in our world by finding solutions exponentially faster than today’s most powerful supercomputers.
But as executives calculate the potential revenue quantum could generate and journalists scramble to find simple ways to explain the complex processes behind it, quantum physicists are increasingly frustrated by a lack of understanding of their domain.
“Quantum computing is actually very different from our usual computing,” quantum physicist Shohini Ghose, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, told Euronews Next.
“It’s not just that it’s a more powerful version of what we have today. It’s actually an entirely different framework for computing itself.”
This framework is difficult to explain with simple analogies and familiar landmarks.
A quantum computer is not X times more powerful than a normal computer. It’s not Real Madrid for your child’s football team. A quantum computer plays a whole different game.
“It’s not the case that a quantum computer is better at every task and somehow speeds up everything we do,” Ghose said.
“There are very specific tasks that a quantum computer can actually do more efficiently.”
Understand the new IT framework
Normal computers – from those we use at work to those that break records frontier supercomputer – work by converting information into binary digits (ones and zeros), called bits. They process long strings of these bits called code and use simple math to tell that code what to do.
A quantum computing framework is based on a different basic unit of information, called a quantum bit, which works on a principle called superposition.
“Imagine a situation where our bit isn’t quite a zero and not quite a one, but it has some probability of being a zero and some probability of being a one,” Ghose said.
“That’s what we call a superposition, and that’s what a quantum bit, or qubit, is described as.”
That may sound less precise, but Ghose says it greatly expands the types of calculations a quantum computer can solve and, in many cases, increases the speed at which it can reach a solution.
“It’s almost like going from two points – 0 and 1 – in a landscape, to being able to flow anywhere in the landscape because any combination of zero and one is possible,” she said.
Game changing potential
So what can quantum computers do better than normal computers?
“If you’re just writing emails, you’re not going to see a huge speedup that will make your emails faster or better,” Ghose said.
“But what could happen is that in the back, a quantum encryption system might be able to improve the security and privacy of your communication.”
Quantum cryptography is a major area of research that uses quantum mechanics to improve the security of online communications. Ghose says back-end quantum encryption could eventually feature on all of our devices.
“If it’s done in a way that’s truly error-free and perfectly designed, it’s completely unhackable,” she said. “This means that to crack this encryption, you would have to break the laws of physics.”
Other applications depend on the ability to build large-scale quantum computers. These could range from developing better pharmaceuticals to building better solar cells and even clothing.
But to really expand the applications of quantum computing, Ghose says experts from different fields need to get involved in the research.
“You don’t have to be a physicist to be part of this new quantum computing revolution,” she said.
“Indeed, the more diverse the groups of people can be, the richer the terrain will be and the more surprising the results will be”.
A long way to go for quantum
There are still many questions that need to be answered before quantum computing can enter the mainstream. First is whether large-scale quantum computers can even be built.
“It’s not entirely clear if we can even really scale them, because no one has been able to show conclusively that as we build bigger and bigger quantum computers, we’re going to to be able to do this in a sustainable and scalable way,” says Ghose.
Qubits must be kept at temperatures near absolute zero to operate, which makes heat management a major hurdle that developers must address.
Cost is also an issue – most estimates put the cost of a single qubit at around $10,000, making a useful quantum computer prohibitively expensive for all but a few industries.
But Ghose says the biggest challenge and unknown in quantum computing is dealing with quantum errors.
“Part of what makes a quantum computer powerful is this particular phenomenon called entanglement, where all the different quantum bits talk to each other and connect in such a way that they kind of start to act as one,” he said. she stated.
“But if these qubits, instead of talking to each other, are talking to something outside of their computational space, like a random particle, they can become entangled with those particles as well.”
In order to control qubits and prevent them from interacting with random particles, Ghose says they must be kept “cooler than outer space”.
The only way to do this currently is to build massive “room-sized” computers, which can fit all the hardware, electronics and cooling systems.
“We will have to do a lot of error correction because they are very, very fragile and even the slightest error or noise completely destroys the calculation,” Ghose said.
“That’s what we have to think about as we move forward, is it really worth it? And if so, how do you do it responsibly and sustainably? I don’t know the answer.”
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