Quantum Leap

You’ve probably heard of Moore’s Law, but in case you haven’t: Moore’s law (created by Intel founder Gordon Moore in 1965) states that the number of transistors per square inch on a computer chip is likely to double every two years, while the costs of developing these chips are halved.

1 Terabyte = 1000 Gigabytes, 1 Gigabyte = 1000 Megabytes

So, what’s a transistor and why does this matter? In the most basic sense: a computer chip has some elementary modules (or functions), which run logic gates (and, or, not, etc.), which are powered by transistors. This sounds complicated, but we can use a straightforward example to clarify things. A simple calculator has a computer chip which has functions (or modules) like add, subtract, multiply, etc., and these modules are calculated using logic gates. A transistor is what translates the number 3 into binary, or a combination of 1’s and 0’s (known as bits) which is the most rudimentary computational language used by CPUs. So why do we use binary? Because electronic computers use electricity to represent real information (letters, numbers, images, etc.) and electricity can either be sent or not, represented by a 1 or a 0. Now that we’re all professionals on how computers work, back to Moore’s Law:

The exponential growth described in Moore’s Law was originally applied to computer chips, but similar trends exist in applications such as computer memory, digital camera pixels, and the resolutions of displays and streaming services. However, exponential growth is typically unsustainable, and many people think that we’re reaching the end of the line when it comes to computational capacity. In 2015, the former CEO of Intel stated that Intel’s “cadence was closer to two and a half years than two”, indicating a slowdown of Moore’s Law. And this makes perfect sense. After all, even if we are able to make transistors that are the size of individual atoms, we will still reach a point where we can’t cram any more computational capacity into a computer chip. Today’s transistors are around 14 nanometers big, which is 500 times smaller than a red blood cell. However, even at 14 nanometers, the transistor is still big enough to prevent electrons from passing through. But at a certain point, the transistor becomes small enough that the electrons can pass through it using a process called quantum tunneling.

Related image

Here’s where quantum computers come in. Quantum computers take advantage of this process to expand on the capabilities of bits. Instead of simply having an electron with a value of 1 or 0 (sent or not), quantum computers use photon-based qubits that can exist as a 0, 1, or any proportion of the two (for example, 50% – 1 and 50% – 0), depending on their polarization. To picture this, imagine you’re wearing polarized sunglasses and looking at your phone screen. As you turn your head, the image darkens, since the lenses are polarized to an angle perpendicular to the light waves from the screen. Keep turning your head a full 90-degrees and the image becomes visible as the lenses are polarized to an angle parallel to the light waves.

Now here’s where things get a little confusing (yes, NOW they get confusing): when a qubit is observed (i.e. passes through a filter) it has to ‘decide’ if it is a 0 or 1 (horizontally or vertically polarized). But until that point, a qubit exists as both a 0 and 1. You heard me right, it’s both – and this is called superposition. If we take 4 regular bits and they each have a value of 0 or 1, they can be in one of 24, or 16, configurations (0000, 0001, 0010, 0011, …, 1111) but only one can be used at a time. 4 qubits, however, can be in each of these 16 configurations simultaneously. At this rate, 20 qubits can store over a million configurations simultaneously. At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering “So what? Why is this important? Why should I care about some new type of computer that I’ll never get to use?”

The easiest answer is that quantum computing has the potential to completely change the way we think of cryptography. Everything you do online today, from checking your emails to sending bank account information, is protected through encryption. Encryption is a way of obscuring data so that, even if intercepted, it is impossible for someone to read the data without your private key. However, quantum computers should be able to solve encryption algorithms significantly faster than today’s computers (which take years). Even things that we consider to be un-hackable (e.g. Blockchain) will be susceptible to quantum computing.

IBM’s Quantum Computer (the chip is the black square at the bottom of the image)
Photo by Amy Lombard

However, this is just the easiest answer. Quantum computers can also be used to create models of quantum physics, helping us understand the fundamental structure of the universe. It can help us advance medicine at speeds we could never envision before by creating models of proteins that are too computationally heavy for today’s computers. They have the potential to enable AI algorithms to finally get us to the point that we can create general artificial intelligences. Quantum computers are also excellent for conducting searches of extremely large data sets. The classic example is a phone book with 100 million names, for which it would take a quantum computer 10,000 operations to find your name. Whereas with traditional computers, this would require an average of 50 million operations to accomplish the same task. The bigger the phone book, the bigger the gap between quantum and traditional computers. And in today’s era of big data and data centers, this type of efficiency has limitless applications.

But the technology is in such an infant state that I believe we won’t even begin to realize its true potential for many years. In addition to the barrier of qubits’ physical limitations (they require carefully shielding and temperatures near absolute zero to function), I think that many people won’t realize their value until they see them produce results. This is why so many companies (IBM, Google, Microsoft, JP Morgan, and more) and the US government (to the tune of $1.3 billion) are investing so heavily into quantum computing. They’re all running a race where the exact prize may be uncertain but undoubtedly comes in an enormous box.

Image result for quantum computer
IBM’s new System One Quantum Computer

5 comments

  1. Interesting read! I can’t say that I fully understand the fundamentals of quantum computing, but I certainly understand its implications. I think the proliferation of quantum computing will really become the great awakening of the digital area. That is, I believe that the power of quantum computing in the wrong hands threatens the security of any digital business or interface. Even blockchain based applications and cryptocurrencies will lose their value as a result of quantum computers’ power to find collisions in the hash function. It will be interesting to see how internet regulation responds to the threats posed by quantum computing!

  2. Extremely interesting topic that I think takes a lot to explain, so great job! I know we have briefly touched on quantum computing when talking about blockchain. I can now understand where the concern may be in this powerful form of computing. It will be interesting to see how this technology multiplied in value over time as experts begin to forget understand the power behind it. The way in which you described it sheds a positive light on what this could do for modern medicine which would be amazing!

  3. First and foremost, thank you for breaking this topic down so well – after reading your post, I feel like I can at least grasp at the basics of the critical differences between traditional and quantum computing. I was particularly struck by the last line of this post: “They’re all running a race where the exact prize may be uncertain but undoubtedly comes in an enormous box.” To me, the growing emphasis on developing quantum computers feels like a futuristic arms race – effectively harnessing the power of quantum computing inevitably will create a “winner takes all” situation. Once quantum computing becomes possible at the enterprise level, for example, competition will no longer be a spectrum based on firms’ ability to creatively implement and scale their digital strategies. Instead, it seems as though it will become a binary world – the industry winners will have quantum computing, and the losers will not. The same can be said on a geopolitical scale, as nations still relying on traditional computing will be no match for any nation with the ability to use quantum computing in its foreign intelligence and weapons systems. Quantum computing development is the epitome of a true first-mover advantage.

  4. First of all thank you for the general summary on how computer chips work. My friends have asked me essentially “how do computers work” being the ~ tech guy ~ of the group, and I never grasped it enough to explain it. I’m going to just go back and read them that, and I think it should do the trick. Quantum computing is fascinating and a great topic for a post. I still don’t fully get it, but your explanation certainly helped. It seems almost inevitable that we’ll reach those capabilities but the implications of that tech really start to creep close to the creepy/cool line. General intelligence is scary, and that significant increase of computing power coupled with our advances in AI, make Skynet a not so distant reality. I just keep imagining such fundamental changes that this technology could bring about that it makes me a little nervous. Clearly it will have numerous beneficial impacts that are almost unimaginable. Surely any crazy impacts are years away, but this is what keeps me up at night.

  5. Thank you for such a clear and digestible explanation of quantum computing. Maybe there’s more to this thought, but if quantum computing can make encryption hackable, I would hope that in return we would be able to combat this with the help of quantum computing capabilities. For a current example, I’m thinking of the arms race between ad blocker applications and web developers where ad blockers forces web and social developers to find workarounds and serve ads in new ways to evade being blocked.

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