Quantum computing: What is it, and why should you care?
Quantum computing research is attracting a lot of attention—and investment—these days. But the pure math and complex physics that overlay quantum computing are areas most IT and business leaders can't wrap their head around, notes Michael Bird, host of this episode of Technology Untangled.
To start, quantum computing differs greatly from traditional computing, leveraging "the properties of entanglement and superposition to perform computations, simulations, and optimizations much, much faster than the classical computers we're used to," explains Sarah McCarthy, a research fellow at the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing in Ontario.
But what does all that mean?
Quantum computing simplified
While not an easy topic to tackle, the experts describe it this way: To double the compute power in classical computing, the number of processors must double, which creates bigger and bigger supercomputers. But as components get smaller and smaller, "it gets tricky to make them any smaller because of quantum effects," which is what quantum researchers are looking to capture, says Tony Stranack, chief technologist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
"Instead of doubling the number of processors, you just have to add one more bit and you get double the amount of power," he continues. This is where superposition comes in.
"So it's much, much easier to scale a quantum computer—if you can build one in the first place—than it is to scale a classical computer, a supercomputer, where you just need more and more compute engines to give you that increasing power," Stranack says.
Then there's the idea of entanglement, whereby quantum computers can parallelize the processing of a problem, using all combinations of possibilities at the same time, which greatly speeds results compared to what's possible with traditional computers.
Given the nascent nature of quantum computing and the technology's complexity, why would it be relevant to—and how would it benefit—today's businesses?
For one, quantum computers take up a fraction of the space of current computers: Remember, you have to add just one bit to double their power. And two, it's that level of power that can find solutions to problems out of the reach of today's computers, the experts say.
Take the problem of the traveling salesperson, says Stranack. If a salesperson has to visit all of their customers across 20 different cities, for example, what would be the optimum route between cities, factoring in the distances between the cities and the different costs of travel among them?
"You sit there and go, if I use this one first, where does it calculate? Where do I go next? Then I have to calculate all the multiples of those cities," he says. "So, each time, I have to count all the multiples and all the multiples and all the multiples. And that is a really hard challenge for classical computing because it just requires raw grunt [work]. Each time I add one more city, multiply the complexity of that answer drastically."
Other areas that would benefit from quantum computing include airline flight and fuel economy simulation, financial market modeling, weather prediction and interpretation, and chemical compound simulation.
The state of quantum computing
So, are there any quantum computers in existence today?
"It depends on what you mean by existence," says Ray Beausoleil, a senior vice president at HPE and director of the large-scale integrated photonics lab for Hewlett Packard Labs. "We've gone from simple, straightforward demonstrations with a few qubits in the lab to a genuine attempt to start scaling up to a larger number of qubits in companies—both large and small venture-funded organizations—and they're attempting to demonstrate larger and larger numbers of qubits that have been harnessed to do useful quantum computations."
In short, while quantum computers are being built, they are not ready for prime time, he says: "The basic problem is that our ability to wall off a quantum computer from the classical part of the universe and all of the interference that it provides … is an extremely difficult problem that requires some extraordinary, advanced, new, and difficult engineering in order to pull off. And we are just not there yet."
The race toward quantum supremacy
Nevertheless, researchers around the world are racing to achieve that milestone, or what some call quantum supremacy. And as Bird points out, one of the top reasons governments are "shoveling a load of money and resources into quantum computing" is because it will be able to break encryption.
While that capability is a ways out, McCarthy, who is also a cryptographic adviser to Silicon Valley startup QSecure, recommends that organizations today "take an inventory of their important assets, like sensitive or valuable information, and understand how it is encrypted already, how the keys are generated, and how they're stored and managed."
"The next step would be to begin building quantum-safe solutions into your existing cybersecurity planning and lifecycle management," she adds. "The aim should be to address quantum risk proactively and build a roadmap now, rather than waiting until a quantum computer is built."
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