Computer Science / Engineering

The Rise of Quantum Computing

By Kellie Lu

After Edward Snowden’s grand alert about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) secret data mining program PRISM, Americans (and the entire world) have woken up to issues of privacy and cyber security. Quantum computing, a better form of cyber security, is evolving as the next standard for semiconductor-based computing (right now, we use silicon and gallium arsenide in transistors). Just as computers evolved from shelves of vacuum tubes piled against walls to 2.5 billion transistors packed into Intel’s 10-core Xeon processor, quantum computers represent the next level of evolution of computing power.

The difference between a bit and a qubit (via AT&T Labs)

Quantum’s computing’s power, if harnessed fully, has the potential to completely revise our current standards of cyber security. The most prevalent current form of cryptography on the web that protects private information, online banking and shopping, and other modes of sensitive information transfer is a form of public key encryption known as RSA encryption (with RSA standing for the founder’s names). This current form of encryption relies upon extremely large prime numbers that modern day transistor-based computing devices cannot decrypt in a plausible amount of time, allowing secure transfer. However, the power of quantum computing will be able to break down these large prime numbers easily. These qubits, or units of quantum information, that the quantum computers harness are used to solve complex problems. The computers find an elusive solution out of many by solving numerous equations simultaneously from a property called superposition. Schrodinger’s cat is a famous example of this paradox, but here’s another way to think about superposition:

Pretend you’re in a room with a Quidditch snitch, and you have your eyes closed. You don’t know whether the snitch is to your right or to your left until you open your eyes or make a measurement. While your eyes are closed and you haven’t made a measurement, quantum mechanics would dictate that the snitch is both to your right and to your left. More precisely, the snitch is omnipresent, populating all positions in the room at once, (super-) positioned everywhere at any time. However, the moment your eyes flicker open and make a measurement by judging the location of the snitch, you affect the location of the snitch by making this measurement.

A D-Wave quantum computer (via Wired)

Currently, the first commercial quantum computing company, called D-Wave Systems in Canada has produced a 512-qubit computer, able to perform optimization algorithms thousands of times faster than transistor-based computers. We can expect the development of qubits to parallel the development of transistors in Moore’s Law, which is Intel founder Gordon Moore’s perception that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every two years, increasing general processing ability of a computer. In fact, since D-wave’s first quantum computer launch in 2010, D-Wave has actually managed to double the number of qubits in the processors of quantum computers each year so far – an astounding rate of development. We’ll have to see if exponential growth can continue in the upcoming years. But in the meantime, the field of quantum computing is enjoying growing sponsorship and interest; NASA, Google, and the Universities Space Research Association have all reportedly signed on contracts with D-Wave. Google has even created a free, downloadable quantum computing packet for the popular video game Minecraft.

However, at this very moment in time, quantum computing is still a ripe discipline; researchers have yet to wholly comprehend and exploit the power of the qubit. Nevertheless, within the next decade or two, the current transistor digital age will almost certainly undergo the transformation into a quantum digital age as quantum computing shifts from being a theoretical concept to a reality. The reality is close: for instance, researchers from the London Centre for Nanotechnology and University of British Columbia recently discovered an element whose electrons possess the capability to adopt superpositioned states.  This blue pigment, copper phthalocyanine (CuPc), could potentially be the next material inside a CPU (Central Processing Unit) of the next generation of computers. And right now, who knows what quantum computer scientists may discover next? One conviction is for sure: these developments highlight the growing practicality of quantum computing, one of the most revolutionary computing technologies in the near future.

Feature image via University of Oklahoma.

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