After decades of thinking and tinkering, quantum capabilities are finally poised to break out of the science lab and into the tech world.
Right now, the United States, China and European Union are spending a combined $13 billion on quantum information science research. And that doesn’t include the private investments by Google, Intel, Microsoft and other industry heavyweights, who funneled $240 million into the field just last year.
Quantum computers are very different from the computers we’re used to. Want to get your hands on one? Not so fast. There are a limited number of quantum computers in the world, tucked away in environmentally-controlled labs where they can maintain temperatures just a fraction above absolute zero—and cost a small fortune to operate.
We won’t feel the true impact of quantum information science (AKA ‘quantum computing’) until engineers develop a quantum bit that operates at room temperatures. Then quantum tech will be able to scale economically…and once that happens, the implications will be staggering. Here’s what you need to know in the meantime.
What is quantum information science, anyway?
“Classical” computers rely on 0s and 1s, or bits, to process and relay information. Bits are also called classical bits or transistors, and there are billions of them in the device you’re using to read this right now. Quantum computers, on the other hand, use qubits, which can be 0, 1, or anything in between at the same time. This happens because, at the microscopic level, atomic particles such as photons or electrons or ions probabilistically take on states simultaneously. This phenomenon is called superposition.
OK, tell me more about superposition.
In everyday life, a superposition often takes the form of waves—such as two musical notes playing at once. At the atomic level things stop playing by the rules we’re used to. So even though the largest quantum computer today is around 1,000 to 2,000 qubits, it can solve very complex problems at about the same speed as a classical computer with billions of bits. Another aspect of the quantum state is called entanglement.
I think I read about entanglement in high school physics class.
It’s something that Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger (of Schrodinger’s Cat fame) thought a lot about. Entanglement refers to the extremely strong correlation that exists between quantum particles even if they are very far away from each other, something Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” In theory entangled particles will respond together simultaneously regardless of physical separation.
What are the real-world applications of this tech?
Quantum computers aren’t necessarily faster than classical computers today, but they have potential to be exponentially faster. Thanks to superposition and entanglement, they can do simultaneous computations that classical ones can’t. Their ability to rapidly analyze petabyte data sets will be a huge help in medical research, financial services, machine learning—and lots of applications that we haven’t even thought of yet.
Sounds magical. What’s the downside?
Today’s cryptography depends on prime number factorization: Large numbers get broken down into prime numbers. Classical computers can’t efficiently handle this kind of factoring, but quantum computers can. That’s why nations all over the world are investing so heavily in quantum computing research. It’s an arms race to defend themselves against large-scale brute force hacking, as well as to develop their own post-quantum or quantum-resistant cryptography systems.
This is fascinating and kind of scary, but how will this affect me as an IT professional?
The world of cybersecurity is about to undergo a drastic change. On the one hand, effective post-quantum standards and protocols are still being developed. If you haven’t already implemented AES-256 or AES-512 for your encryption standards, you should as an interim protection. You can also look into using hash-based signatures. Keep an eye out for new types of hybrid quantum systems coming out—there are quantum sensors, quantum key distribution, and quantum encryption methods that will impact IT as well.