Quantum of Solace
How Einstein’s Greatest Challenge is Fueling Growth
February 18th, 2018
By: Noah Blaff
Compounding: The 8th Wonder of the World
An old fable tells the story of a peasant who challenged the King to a game of chess. The King told the peasant that if he were to win, he would be presented a reward of his choosing. The peasant claimed victory and requested to be awarded in the following manner: begin with a penny on the first square of the chessboard and continuously double that amount on each subsequent square until the last; the peasant sought the aggregate amount.
The King thought the man a fool, he would only have to part with a mere 128 pennies across the first row. Thus, he agreed to the payment. However, his smile quickly vanished when, a few rows in, the King noticed that his entire fortune wouldn’t be nearly sufficient in paying the agreed upon debt. The mistake he had made was grossly underestimating the power of exponential growth.
This same power is being harnessed in a new technological development that is transforming the world around us: quantum computing. Quantum computing is the most powerful technological resource we have witnessed to date and is currently enhancing performance in myriad industries through the power of pattern recognition and optimization to support innovation and drive growth. As data mining becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the potential that quantum computing propounds is unparalleled. Many are doubtful of quantum computing’s future given its complex nature and physical restrictions that may inhibit commercial adoption, however the development of accompanying technologies will ensure that quantum computing will play a pivotal role across numerous industries and applications.
What is Quantum?
Quantum computing harnesses powerful quantum mechanical principles into the processing system of a computer. Due to the scientific principles of entanglement and superpositioning, the quantum computer can manipulate its processing power to an elevated gradation. Where classical computing uses binary coding of ones and zeros, quantum computing forms the qubit or quantum bit.
Quantum computers are highly effective as every input in the data stream, qubits, are not restricted (as conventional computers ‘bits’ are) to act as only ones or zeros. In fact, they can function as ones and zeroes. Theoretically, this means that for “n” pieces of information, classical bits represent one out of 2 to the exponent “n” possible permutations available with quantum technology. The important implication of this distinction between classical and quantum computers is that as the amount of inputs increases, the processing power divergence between quantum and classical computing grows exponentially larger.
The principles of quantum computing are highly complicated, such that Richard Feynman, a renowned quantum physicist, famously remarked, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”.
Currently, controlled quantum computers can only reach up to 50 qubits in their processing unit. However, once these machines hit 100 qubits, even the most advanced supercomputers (conventional computers engineered in large facilities for the sole purpose of data processing) will struggle to keep pace. D-wave systems, the original quantum computer developer, has already created very basic forms of quantum processing that can perform tasks 100 million times faster than the conventional processor. However, these systems can perform with such power as they are designed to solve very specific problems.
Leaps and Bounds
The enigmatic quantum computer presents an opportunity for growth across numerous industries. Special features (which are discussed later) aside, quantum computing presents an opportunity for exponentially greater processing power. Supercomputers are currently being harnessed for sheer processing power. Thus, it would be valuable to look at specific impacts quantum computing could have by analysing the current places supercomputers are contributing to. As aforementioned, quantum processing allows for exponentially greater performance and thus, industries currently utilizing supercomputers would yield significant advantages in the strategic shift to quantum. As the average computer transistor size currently is 14 nanometres, 500 times smaller than a red blood cell, the only logical path forward in terms of performance enhancement is quantum operations.
At the University of Texas, for example, medical professionals are using IBM’s Watson AI program to analyse expansive quantities of data from medical literature. The process is formally known as computer-aided diagnostics (CAD) and it entails the supercomputer continuously interpreting data and providing doctors with unique patient diagnoses. CAD is being used primarily in cancer treatment, where pattern recognition can match an individual’s conditions to studies that demonstrated successful treatment of patients with similar conditions.
Currently, Watson can “consume the equivalent of a million books per second” according to IBM. However, the effectiveness of a quantum program that could read billions of books per second would triumph these results even at quantum’s infancy stage. Quantum computers will revolutionize CAD by running prescriptive analytical programs, providing recommendations based on trend analysis from precedent cases.
An Economist Intelligence Unit report on big data showed that 83% of professionals feel that data mining is making operations more successful. After surveying global executives, they found that in Asia, the US, and Europe, data mining is routinely increasing revenue 63%, 58%, and 56% of the time, respectively. The transition of technology for countless businesses is inevitable, rendering quantum computing the most business-friendly advancement of the future. As is always the case with quantum, the potential is limitless.
Can’t Crack the Code
Internet usage rates have increased nearly tenfold in the previous 15 years, this has necessitated an increased need for cybersecurity. Aligned with this, another potential and significant application concealed within quantum computing is ultra-secure server interactions. Described as a “global communication link whose security is forged by unbreakable physical laws”, the application of quantum mechanics to cloud computing, which is presently susceptible to hacking, can generate uncrackable codes which form the basis of an impenetrable communications network.
In light of data fissures that transpired amongst Equifax, WikiLeaks, and the alleged Russian election hacking, all could be nullified via proper application of quantum technology. The impacts of these hackings are prodigious. Equifax lost ~35% of their market value following the loss of 143,000,000 customer files. WikiLeaks published confidential emails from Hillary Clinton, serving as the secretary of state at the time. Some believe that the purported Russian hacking landed an unworthy presidential candidate into office. As society becomes more interactive globally, it is vital to ensure sensitive information remains secure. Quantum processes present an unprecedented opportunity to use and store data with the utmost degree of safety.
Room for Improvement
The greatest challenge that quantum computing currently faces is its environmental restrictions that facilitate its use. To be able to leverage the principles that make such computing power a reality, the computer must be stored in quite the exotic and expensive setting. It operates at a temperature near absolute zero, negative 273 degrees centigrade — often referred to as the thermodynamic limit, the lowest temperature that’s physically possible in the universe.
The environmental aspects of running a quantum computer have always been viewed as a hindrance to its growth potential. Such a cumbersome and complex piece of machinery surely could not be of use to the average company in its current state. However, researchers at Aalto University in Finland believe the solution to this lies in a nanoscale refrigerator. They have conceived a product that can maintain the internal temperature of quantum processors at the required level, and requires minimal storage requirements. The research team that designed this product says the product could be commercially available 10–15 years down the line.
R&D Supports Needed Innovation
Academics in the field, akin to those working at Aalto University, potentially underestimate the amount of R&D spending that could result from a valid inkling. In 2015 alone, the world saw a gross investment of 2.3 billion dollars according to McKinsey research. Currently, European countries are leading aggregate spending followed by the US and China, respectively. If nanofridge technology is the key to future success, the spending valve will surely be loosened.
Nanofridge technology is not likely to remain the sole hope of quantum computing’s future. A surfeit of research papers are being written regarding the future of quantum computing, these will likely yield further alternatives that support the computer’s inherently unsustainable environment. The National Review said that the “competition for [quantum computing] is the new arms race”. Previously, government spending accounted for the majority of R&D in the field, however, this is rapidly changing with the emergence of tech giants in the space. Homeland Security Research estimates that by 2024 quantum research spending will reach $10.7B in the United States, with 79% coming from companies and 21% from governments, respectively. This projected shift from government to private spending signifies the growth of the industry and profitability. As private companies seek to take advantage of the profit opportunities that await, their involvement in developing the product will increase significantly, as the research shows.
Quantum computing’s commercial potential remains largely untapped at the moment. With monstrous companies akin to Google, IBM, and Apple leading the charge, we will see this progression rapidly increase; commercial usage could be within the next five years. Whether it will be the next big advancement or bust fulcrums on modifying environmental constraints and increasing its processing ability well beyond the current qubit limit. However, one thing is for sure, if it can effectively overcome these barriers we would see increased efficiency in virtually all industries. If the product progresses according to forecasts of authorities in the field, conventional computers will become as obsolete as the abacus in the very near future.