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As binary computers are beginning to show their limits, quantum physics brings a new technology that can revolutionise computing as we know it. This article will discuss the future possibilities that quantum computing offers for different sectors.
Introduction to the quantum ways
Quantum computing is a rising technology that will make computing faster and more secure. So, what is the difference to “normal” computers? There are three clear differences between the technologies. Firstly, the computers that we know work on a binary process where units of data called bits act as a basis of algorithms and are represented as either 0s or 1s. Quantum computers in turn use superposition and their qubits can exist as 0s, 1s or as a combination of both, like a probability. This lets quantum computers operate faster and more efficiently than familiar binary computers. However, it also makes quantum stability and error correction major issues as any outside influence can increase chances of error.
The second difference between the computers is that bits are manipulated separately in binary computers. Quantum computers, in turn, have an advantage of entanglement where a change in one qubit affects all the others. The third difference results from this entanglement. Binary computers need to process all data sequentially which takes a lot of time. Quantum computers, due to entanglement, can instead simultaneously consider all potential routes and choose one that is probabilistically most correct by cancelling out all wrong answers. As an example, because binary computers require trial and error to find the correct answers, a puzzle with one million possible solutions would require on average 500 thousand tries to reach the right one. A quantum computer instead would solve this in only one thousand attempts, which is 500 times faster.
Tool to find out more about the universe
By using numerous probabilities that are linked together, quantum computing offers many new real-world applications. It can help with logistical and optimisation problems by for example finding the fastest routes for ride sharing apps like Uber and finding the most cost-efficient way to deliver goods on busy holidays. These need the calculation of hundreds or thousands of variables simultaneously. Similarly, machine learning, weather and climate modelling, and even space exploration can be made faster and more accurate by using the quantum methods that take into account probabilities.
Quantum encryption will ensure that all data will be safe because one would need to break the laws of quantum physics to break the keys. This is currently being tested by banks and other institutions worldwide. Additionally, using quantum keys will make undetected eavesdropping of private online information impossible.
Quantum computers have the ability to simulate physical systems. They are even able to describe and calculate all quantum properties of the atoms in molecules accurately, which is computationally difficult even for supercomputers. The technology is possible because the quantum computer operates by using the same quantum properties that exist in the form it tries to simulate. The opportunities of this ability spread into pharmaceutical, chemical and energy fields. By decoding DNA and each person’s unique microbiome will enable doctors to prescribe perfectly customised drugs to each patient. It can also be used to predict how different molecules react to drugs, which will speed up development and lower the prices. Boston Consultancy Group (BCG) estimate that quantum simulations could represent a market of up to 20 billion USD by 2030 as well as an additional 7 billion USD coming from chemical and material science industries.
Hurdles to overcome
Before all national security, banking, and communication services, and even the internet, are modified to be safe with quantum encryption, quantum computers could break encryptions in under an hour that would take thousands of years to hack on modern supercomputers. Companies need to be prepared to start protecting their data with new quantum-proof methods before quantum encryption is possible and a quantum network has been made to suit the advancing technology.
Despite all the applications that quantum computing will enable, it will take a while before the technology can be accessible for more people. The largest problem is caused by quantum states being highly unstable When a qubit interacts with its environments, it loses quantum properties and becomes a regular bit. Because of this, quantum computers need to be completely airtight and isolated. The best way to protect quantum circuits from outside interactions, is to keep them in vacuum conditions at near absolute zero temperature, which equals -273 degrees Celsius. This poses the problem as the energy amount needed to cool the circuits is astonishingly high, and both economically and ecologically costly. Even without quantum computers, ordinary data centres could consume 20% of Earths power by 2025 if renewable energy cannot be sourced. Climate Change News predict that the ICT industry will be responsible of 14% of global emissions by 2040. How much will cooling down quantum computers add to the increasing energy consumption?
Fujitsu’s Digital Annealer is an example of a hybrid computer that solves problems with quantum acceleration. It simulates how a quantum processor works and has been already used in different industries to boost efficiency. For example, the quantum technology can speed up the calculation of the impact of pedestrianizing a street would have on 49 adjacent streets from a year, as a normal binary computer would need, to 0.3 seconds. As Fujitsu advertise: “The Digital Annealer is available as-a-service on a subscription basis, including technical and consulting services, support and optional additional consultancy for solution development. It can be deployed as a cloud hosted or on-premises service”. This technology brings all the benefits of quantum computing without the need of the energy-intensive cooling systems.
BCG have identified three future generations of quantum computing. During the first generation from 2018 to 2028, engineers will work on developing non-universal quantum computer that can be used for low-complexity simulations. The second generation (2028-2039) will be more impressive as quantum computers will scale up to 50 logical qubits. They will achieve quantum supremacy over classical computing by performing algorithms faster in specific applications. This generation will focus on problems such as software development, research and design, and molecular simulation. As usable applications will come to the market, companies will become more familiar with quantum simulation methods. The third generation (2031-2042) will overlap with the second because of the thresholds at which quantum computing takes over binary computing in certain applications. During this timeframe, quantum computers will achieve the scale to perform advanced simulations already for commercial use in search, physical simulation, and optimisation. Assuming that there will be no improvement on error correction in quantum computing, the market for quantum applications could reach 2 billion USD in 2035, and more than 260 billion USD by 2050.