A Zero Math Introduction to Quantum Computing
While there is plenty of great “introduction to quantum computing” material out there, I’ve wanted to write my own one for a while. I was especially interested in seeing how far I could get without using any mathematics, and side stepping concepts from physics like superposition or wave particle duality.
Not that those things aren’t important — in fact they were the exact concepts that got me hooked on the field in the first place. But with all the cool stuff to explore, it feels like it was about time someone spent more time on the other bits.
So here’s my attempt at writing a quick summary on quantum that doesn’t start with “qubits”, but rather looks at the field through the lens of its most exciting capabilities and most daunting challenges.
A fundamentally different computer chip
The tech and science you need to know to get setup is that quantum computers are essentially a new type of computer chip that replace the electronics on our current chips with subatomic particles like electrons or photons.
I’m going to use the word ‘particle’, but the truth is some other things can work here too, and scientists are still figuring out what the best system to use on these chips actually is.
It’s also helpful to call out particles at this stage, because it turns out the properties that make quantum computing useful are intrinsically tied to the physics of the particle itself, and the way it interacts with other particles.
That’s really all the science you need to get a good mental model of how these things work.
Solving intractable problems
So the reason people are so excited about quantum is that, using these new “particle-powered” chips, we will be able to process information in a more powerful way. In fact, it will help us run some very complex calculations that were previously too time consuming for us to even consider running on today’s best supercomputers.
In extreme cases, you’ll hear about solving mathematical problems that it would otherwise take billions of years for the best computers we have today to complete.
So far, so mildly interesting.
The fun part is that the complex calculations we’ll be able to perform will unlock capabilities we have only ever dreamed of!
What kind of super powers? Well, the experimental data suggests we will be able to unlock the secrets of nature and design the world around us.
Designing the world around us
The reason I use this phrase is that the use-cases people are most excited about for the future of quantum computing are in designing new things using advanced abilities in chemistry and biology.
I was surprised to learn that even everyday processes around us like leaves turning sunlight into energy via photosynthesis, or the way the caffeine molecules in our morning coffees behave are technically too complex for us to model and simulate on the computers we have today. The promise for quantum is that we will not only be able to understand these things better, but we’ll be able to explore using the same design tools that nature itself uses.
The analogy I like to think of is the blocks and textures in Minecraft. We’re about to break free from the limitations of the pack that the game gives us, and we’ll gain the ability to create our own new blocks and textures that look and behave in exactly the way we want them to.
And so then the question is, what might we design? Well here are two fields that people are very excited about currently:
- Medicine design. With the quantum computing’s ability to accurately represent molecules and proteins, we’ll be able to create new medicines that allow us to redefine healthcare.
- Material design. The buildings, vehicles, and clothing around us will change as we unlock the ability to better understand the materials around us, as well as explore uninvented materials.
And the list of opportunities only starts there.
I also pick the term “design” because I’m enthusiastic about the idea that, with the right software tools, research in this area can blossom into a new industry of creative thinkers designing solutions to the world’s biggest challenges.
So where are we at with building quantum computers?
The answer in some ways is that we’ve only recently graduated beyond science experiment stage, but at the same time these computers are also accessible on the Cloud for you to interact with via AWS, IBM, or other providers.
A useful way to think of it is that we have proven that quantum computers work using fragile and limited early-stage devices.
Now there’s plenty of engineering work ahead, possibly around a decade’s worth, to make these fragile machines scale to the point that they solve the big challenges we have in mind for them.
And yet what’s exciting is that the ramp up will include related discoveries along the journey.
In the same way that NASA working to launch early space missions contributed to inventions like freeze-dried food, improved solar cells, and LASIK — the next few years for quantum is likely lined with discoveries.
For example, one area that quantum computers have shone a light on is cryptography. The theoretical breakthroughs in quantum computing today have uncovered vulnerabilities in our current approach to encrypting and moving data around, which has ignited a race for companies working in cybersecurity to use today’s computers to create new protocols that will be ready and resilient for the ‘post-quantum’ age.
Another related field that quantum computing has refocused the world’s interest on is quantum sensing . In this class of applications, subatomic systems can be used to measure or sense signals in the world around us to a very high degree of accuracy. The applications of this technology are numerous, but fun examples include an ability to monitor changes in the electromagnetic field of organs within our body in a non-intrusive way, which could lead to better ways of understanding what our hearts and brains are doing.
Finally, in the field of machine learning, we’re learning that in the near-term, early quantum computing can either enhance directly or at least inspire improvements to techniques like generative modelling, reinforcement learning, and optimization - opening up opportunities to revolutionize the way we interact with AI.
So while it may seem like a while before we’re able to bask in the full glory of a quantum computer, the path that leads to it is lined with possibilities.