Open up a whole new world with quantum computing

Ramesha Perera
Mon 01 Apr

Every once in a while, a technology comes along with so much potential that people can't seem to stop talking about it. Only problem is not many people know what they're actually talking about.

So what is quantum computing and why is everyone talking about it?

Moore's Law predicts that computing power will double about every two years., and with time almost up there is a mad rush to find a new avenue for advancement. This is where quantum computing fits in.

Quantum Computing got its start with a talk by Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman in 1981 about simulating physics on a computer. He concluded that you can't truly simulate the physical world with a digital computer, but you could with a quantum computer. Feynman's prominence drew intense interest to the field.

However, to a large extent, Feynman's idea was useless. It stimulated countless theoretical ideas, but since you couldn't really do anything with those ideas there was no practical impact. That began to change in 1993, when scientists at IBM carried out the quantum teleportation experiment, which showed that you could send information using quantum principles.

By the late 1990s, the first rudimentary quantum computers were being built. 


Engineering Actual Solutions

Today, quantum computing has long past the theoretical stage and is deep into the process of solving the engineering challenges. In a room at IBM Research that formerly housed classical supercomputing machines, now resides computing chips. These aren't science experiments, but working machines.

It's not just IBM either. In 2010, D-Wave launched the first commercial version of its quantum computer, based on a scaled down approach called quantum annealing. Google also has a very advanced program and Microsoft and Intel are making serious investments in quantum technology. Some well funded startups, such as Rigetti, have also entered the fray.

The transformation goes beyond hardware too. Software is progressing as well. IBM has created QISkit, a set of quantum computing resources roughly similar in concept to Google's TensorFlow library of machine learning tools. Rigetti has released Forest, a similar tool set and an ecosystem of companies, such as ID Quantique and QxBranch, has also arisen to leverage quantum related technologies.

In 2016, IBM launched its Q Experience initiative, which allows anyone who wants to work on its quantum computer through the cloud. To date, more than 75,000 users, ranging from software developers and scientists to students and the merely curious, have taken the company up on its offer, conducting over 2 million experiments.

Make no mistake. The quantum era has already begun. But where will it take us?


Creating A True Quantum Transformation

Computers, as fascinating as they can be, don't really do much by themselves. They need applications to make an impact on the world. For that to happen, other industries have to adopt the technology and figure out how they can apply new capabilities to solve practical problems.

In the coming years, scientists will have to learn to ask new and different questions that only a quantum computer can provide answers for. Then, they will have to help engineers learn how to see how these new possibilities can help them design better products. Once that happens, we may see a truly incredible transformation.

That's the real potential of quantum computers. It's not just that they will be able to do calculations thousands -- if not millions -- of times faster than conventional machines, but that they will allows us to do things that we could never do before on any machine.


Technology Moves Slowly -- And Then Very Fast

Digital computers were around for almost 40 years before things got really hot in the 80s and 90s. Transformation takes so long not just because it takes time to make the underlying technology more powerful, but because other industries need to learn how to apply new capabilities to create better products and services.

That's why the current debate over quantum supremacy is largely misguided. You're not going to be buying a quantum computer at an Apple Store anytime soon --maybe even in your lifetime-- and accessing one in the cloud will take significant training for the foreseeable future. So whether quantum computers can do traditional calculations faster than digital machines is of little practical value.

What is relevant -- and incredibly exciting -- is that over the next 5-10 years quantum computers are likely to allow us to solve problems that we never could before. We are entering a new era of innovation in which many old metrics will not apply. Those that win in this new age will not be the ones who can do old things faster, but those who can imagine new possibilities.

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