The arrival of the quantum computer signals a paradigm shift in the world of computing.
The differentiation between generations of classical computers was based on the size of the processing unit and the speed of each elementary operation. For theoretical computer science, Eniac, the first computer based on vacuum tubes, and the most recent supercomputer are the same, just bigger and faster.
In contrast, a quantum computer is qualitatively different. It reduces exponentially the number of operations required for executing some specific tasks (for example factoring of large numbers). And the relative advantage swells, again exponentially, as the size of the input grows. So, the more complex the task, the larger the advantage.
The practical benefits of technology that can out-think classical computers are widespread. It is no surprise that tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, IBM, Nokia and Intel are investing billions in quantum research. At the same time, state-funded research across Europe, the US and Asia means the race for quantum supremacy (the point at which the quantum computer outperforms its classical counterpart) is well and truly on.There is significant competitive advantage to be gained for the first past the post in terms of developing a viable quantum computer. Access to the potential of a quantum computer would forever change the playing field for applications as diverse as mathematical modelling, commerce, machine learning and secure communications.
The worlds of science, academia and business have come together like never before, and we have seen some significant advancements in quantum technologies in the past five years. Prototype devices with 50 qubits have already been developed – the theoretical capacity required to achieve quantum supremacy.
However, significant progress remains to be made in creating the basic building blocks of quantum computers – qubits are still work in progress. Meanwhile, corporate organisations are gearing up for a technological leap of outstanding potential value that will transform human productivity.
On the dark side, the arrival of the quantum computer also represents a threat to data security.
Many of today’s cryptographic systems would be rendered useless in the face of an exponential increase in computing power, creating demand for a new generation of quantum-safe security solutions.
Many computing applications with large datasets are poised to benefit from the advent of the quantum computer and much of what the world does is based on the principles of mathematics – from simulation to application.
The trouble is, maths can be hard. Some calculations required for the effective simulation of real-life scenarios are simply beyond the capability of classical computers – what’s known as intractable problems.
Quantum computers, with their huge computational power, are ideally suited to solving these problems. Indeed, some problems, like factoring, are “hard” on a classical computer, but are “easy” on a quantum computer. This creates a world of opportunities, across almost every aspect of modern life.
Classical computers are limited in terms of the size and complexity of molecules they can simulate and compare (an essential process in early drug development). If we have an input of size N, N being the number of atoms in the researched molecules, the number of possible interactions between these atoms is exponential (each atom can interact with all the others).
Quantum computers will allow much larger molecules to be simulated. At the same time, researchers will be able to model and simulate interactions between drugs and all 20,000+ proteins encoded in the human genome, leading to greater advancements in pharmacology.
Quantum technologies could be used to provide faster, more accurate diagnostics with a variety of applications. Boosting AI capabilities will improve machine learning – something that is already being used to aid pattern recognition. High-resolution MRI machines will provide greater levels of detail and also aid clinicians with screening for diseases.
Targeted treatments, such as radiotherapy, depend upon the ability to rapidly model and simulate complex scenarios to deliver the optimal treatment. Quantum computers would enable therapists to run more simulations in less time, helping to minimise radiation damage to healthy tissue.
One potential application for quantum technologies is algorithmic trading – the use of complex algorithms to automatically trigger share dealings based on a wide variety of market variables. The advantages, especially for high-volume transactions, are significant.
Like diagnostics in healthcare, fraud detection is reliant upon pattern recognition. Quantum computers could deliver a significant improvement in machine learning capabilities; dramatically reducing the time taken to train a neural network and improving the detection rate.
Quantum computers will have the ability to aggregate and analyse huge volumes of consumer data, from a wide variety of sources. Big data analytics will allow commerce and government to precisely target individual consumers, or voters, with communications tailored to their preferences; helping to influence consumer spending and the outcome of elections.
With so many variables to consider, accurate weather forecasts are difficult to produce. Machine learning using quantum computers will result in improved pattern recognition, making it easier to predict extreme weather events and potentially saving thousands of lives a year.
Climatologists will also be able to generate and analyse more detailed climate models; proving greater insight into climate change and how we can mitigate its negative impact.
Improved data analysis and modelling will enable a wide range of industries to optimise workflows associated with transport, logistics and supply-chain management. The calculation and recalculation of optimal routes could impact on applications as diverse as traffic management, fleet operations, air traffic control, freight and distribution.