Quantum computing – no black magic but definitely mind-bending

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Forget anything you know about classical computers and the way they work. Open your mind and be prepared to see computational work from an entirely new perspective on a completely new level.

Back in 1900 people couldn’t imagine what a computer could be used for. Fast forward to 2019 and there are over 2 billion computers and the number is increasing. This is a stark contrast to Watson’s assumption in 1943 that “[…] there is a world market for maybe five computers”. The need for data processing is increasing exponentially and the calculations required are constantly increasing in complexity, therein the need for quantum computers.

According to our expert, Preben Thorø (Chairman of the GOTO Conference Program Committees and CTO at Trifork GmbH), the need for quantum computers, although limited now will become a mainstay in the near future. The need for faster and more efficient computers is a given, but…

What is quantum computing, and how is it different from classical computing?

Even if both quantum computers and classical computers are used to solve problems, the main differences reside in the technology involved, the magnitude of the problems, and the way data is manipulated. Based on quantum physics principles, quantum computers make use of superposition (the capacity of a quantum object to exist in multiple states simultaneously) and entanglement (the idea that two particles are in sync even when they are separated from each other).

Therefore, if a classical computer uses bits which can be either 0 or 1, a quantum computer uses Qbits. When these Qbits find themselves in superposition, they are at the same time both 0 and 1 (this is where philosophy and physics come together. Until you observe the Qbit, all you know is that there will be a certain possibility of measuring a 0 and a certain possibility to measure a 1, so until you do the measurement, it is floating around in superposition being both 0 and 1). This, together with the entanglement between Qbits and the probabilities associated with the superpositions, allows for a faster processing of extremely large quantities of data. Rather than the number of Qbits, the coherence time (the period in which the Qbit can remain in superposition) is one of the most important criteria when it comes to evaluating the performance of a quantum computer.

Another central aspect that differentiates between quantum computers and classical ones is the building technology. Because any interference or noise in the system will affect the superposition characteristics, quantum computers must – for the time being – run at temperatures close to absolute zero (below 100 mK, or -273.05°C) which is even lower than interstellar space.

Why do we even need quantum computers?

As days go by, world problems become more and more complex, and humanity will soon run out of traditional computational power to solve them (or not have enough time to see these problems solved). From optimization challenges to simulating and modelling molecular structures, quantum computers might work their way into the chemical industry (potential to develop new materials), fintech (portfolio optimization), logistics and auto industry (traffic optimization and battery improvement), pharma (drug discovery), and defense (cybersecurity).

Preben believes that within relatively few years to come quantum computers will be capable of breaking the AES-256 encryption standard (a key with a length of 256 bits which to be broken would require the processing of 1.1×1077 combinations), which is the current de-facto encryption used by most internet sites. According to the Supertrends app, the current consensus indicates that this might happen around 2031. This opens the door for the development of an entirely new sector in the field of cybersecurity and cryptography, companies, and governments needing to restructure their entire data security structure.

Competitive advantage

Powered by the industry’s key players (Google, IBM, Microsoft) and pushed forward by the private market (D-Wave, Honeywell, Rigetti and Xanadu), the quantum computing field is in continuous development, with over 150 start-ups covering various aspects such as hardware components, software, applications, quantum sensing, and security. Prestigious universities worldwide (Oxford, Harvard, MIT, as well as technological universities in Singapore, China, California, Australia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland) conduct research projects to explore the potential of quantum information technologies and the future possible applications.

In this respect, being “quantum ready” doesn’t only mean to have an encryption system that is unbreakable, but to understand the tremendous potential quantum computing holds. The first companies to harness its power will unquestionably gain a competitive advantage and differentiate themselves on the market.

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