PCs as we know them might be about to go extinct as a new breed of super computer is developed; the quantum computer is on its way.
Quantum computers operate differently to computers as we know them today. Standard computers use “bits” to hold one piece of information, represented by 1 or 0. These form the building blocks of code and computer information. Quantum computers use something a little bit more complicated. Using quantum bits, or “qubits”, they can access far greater amounts of information in a much smaller space.
Five bits in a regular computer contain exactly five pieces of information, each represented by 1 or 0. Five qubits, however, would contain the potential information of thirty-two different combinations of bits. Essentially, a string of qubits contains all of the potential variations of the same amount of bits. Similarly, ten bits of a standard computer pale when compared with ten qubits, which offer over one hundred times as much information with one thousand and twenty-four potential combinations. Most of today’s modern laptops operate with thirty-two or sixty-four bits, so it’s easy to get excited, thinking that quantum computers will turn a smartphone into a supercomputer, but it isn’t quite that simple.
So what can Quantum Computers actually do?
The advantages of quantum computers don’t lie in how much storage they can give your computer, but in the speed and capability of their calculations. A quantum computer is capable of analysing each of its potential combinations simultaneously meaning that a computer with thirty-two qubits can analyse over forty billion possibilities while a thirty-two bit computer is figuring out one. This is posed to overthrow what a computer is actually capable of calculating and experts are speculating about the areas that quantum computers could revolutionise. This computing technology stands poised to completely overhaul how we approach biological and chemical engineering, how we can approach genetic modification, medicine and theoretical physics.
The Future is Almost Here
Rigetti, a startup company specialising in quantum computation, is already giving users access to Forest, a cloud-based program which allows users to practice programming with 36 qubits in advance of the new technology. Rigetti is also currently producing is own quantum chips, but it has steep competition. Both IBM and Google have their eyes on the quantum prize, with Google’s Alan Ho reportedly working with a 20-qubit system. Google is currently up to 99.5 percent qubit fidelity, a measure of the accuracy of the processors, and apparently, they’re on schedule for something truly exciting. By the end of the year, Google has claimed it will have created a computer of forty-nine qubits, with 99.7 percent qubit fidelity, which will make it capable of performing calculations currently beyond any non-quantum computer.
That’s any non-quantum computer.
In other words, Google has its eyes on making the supercomputer obsolete this year with something much much smaller in size. It’s little wonder that Google has given this benchmark the title of “quantum supremacy”. While others race to keep up with the forerunners on this looming technological game-changer, some experts are surprised at how quicklythe technology has already developed. Simon Devitt at the RIKEN Centre for Emergent Matter Science in Japan reportedly said “Things have moved much faster than I would have expected.” Alan Ho is confident that the technology can be implemented with error correction at a level suitable for critical work within the next ten years, so many things should advance rapidly from that point.
Reaching this level of computation might not make Grand Theft Auto run faster on your laptop and it might not let you save ten thousand times as many songs, but it should allow scientists to perform vastly complicated simulations and calculations. There’s an excellent chance that these machines will propel every piece of computer technology that changes the world over the next century.