The Potential of Quantum Computing

By Matthew McCarthy
Technology and Innovation Writer

If you have seen an advertisement for IBM recently, you might have heard about their project involving quantum computing. For most people, quantum computing sounds like something out of science fiction. Maybe it is something cut out of the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie? However, there are many companies—the most prominent of which are IBM and Google—that are trying to be the first to bring technology into the age of quantum computing. Many scientists and key researchers hypothesize that quantum computing could unlock a new level of computing capabilities. Far out pacing and outperforming their classical counterparts, able to calculate faster, as well as create simulations that current computers simply could not. This all sounds fantastic, but it does beg the question: What is quantum computing?

Innovation pushes forward in the race to scale quantum computing at the prospect of revolutionizing computing power. (Photo courtesy of Alexandre Debiève)

Quantum computing is computer science that utilizes the field of quantum mechanics. To explain quantum mechanics simply, it is the study based off of modern physics that explores the nature and behavior of energy and matter at the atomic and subatomic level. All computers from the ones in your pockets to the ones in your briefcases or backpacks all work in a very simple language of bits. Bits are the most basic form of data that make up the terabytes of information stored in every home in America. Bits can be one of two options; on or off, up or down, 1 or 0. All computers work off of this basic language called binary, but quantum computers look to change the most basic building blocks of computer technology. Using quantum bits, or qubits, as the new building blocks of quantum computing, this new level of technology fundamentally changes what a bit can do. Instead of being either a 1 or a 0, qubits can be both 1 and 0 at the same time, which seems inherently paradoxical. These confusing qubits can be used as what has been described as a “spinning coin” to create complex algorithms within a computer’s code. These types of codes can be and have been used to create more secure barriers and codes, to solve mathematical problems quicker than classical computers, solve problems seemingly unsolvable by conventional supercomputers, and even simulate complex chemical reactions. However, there are many problems on the road to the full potential of quantum computing.

First off, it is very difficult to keep qubits in the state of both being 1 and 0, as most would assume. It is still fairly easy for quantum bits to fall into decoherence and become regular old bits. Due to this problem, the largest of existing quantum computers is Google’s 56 qubit computer. Another problem is that each circuit must be chilled to near absolute zero and is made of superconductive material. So, it is safe to say we will not have quantum laptops for some time. Despite these problems some of the world’s brightest minds and largest companies are working towards fully realized quantum computing. As previously stated, Google is currently in the lead with their 56-qubit computer that has already solved a previously unsolvable math problem, with plans of creating a 1 million qubit computer within a decade. IBM although, has recently announced their own plan for a 1000 qubit computer within two years, a bold move if they cannot deliver. However, IBM seems confident as they are preparing a massive liquid helium cooled refrigerator to contain their own 1 million qubit machine. The full potential of quantum computing is still far off, and there are many mathematicians and scientists, who see it as truly impossible. Only time will tell if computer science will be completely upended.


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