As scientists and engineers explore alternatives to conventional computers, one field in particular stands above the rest for its extraordinary potential, as well as, complexity: quantum computing.
Quantum computers promise exponential increases in speed over today’s classical computers, and they have the potential to impact problems on a global scale.
The most basic piece of information that a typical computer understands is a bit. Much like a light that can be switched on or off, a bit can have only one of two values: “1” or “0.”
In quantum computing, instead of bits we have qubits, which allow us to represent a much larger number of values at the same time. By exploiting the quantum mechanical properties of superposition and entanglement, the qubits in a quantum computer can zip through millions of solutions at once, while desktop PCs must consider them one at a time.
IBM is a world leader in superconducting qubit-based quantum computing science and a pioneer in the fields of experimental and theoretical quantum information. Though these fields are still in the category of fundamental science, long term, they may enable the solution of problems that are today either impossible or impractical to solve using conventional machines.
Quantum computing promises to help businesses and society deal with the massive amounts of diverse types of data that are emerging, and to satisfy the tremendous demands for processing power coming in the era of cognitive computing.
To learn about quantum computing’s potential and the impact it could have on business and industries, the IBM Center for Applied Insights interviewed leading experts in the field. While the optimists among them foresee full-blown, commercially available fault-tolerant digital quantum computers within 10 to 20 years, others expect a longer wait.
The new report was part of the discussion at the ThinkQ 2015, a colloquium last week at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. The event convened some of the world’s leading scientists and researchers in this new information processing realm.
The New Horizon
The pace of technological innovation in computing has been astonishing, triggering an equally stunning rise in the volume and complexity of challenges that test the limits of today’s computers.
But the parade of innovations that have produced ever-faster and more powerful computer chips is in danger of falling behind. The laws of both physics and economics threaten the progression of Moore’s Law.
One of the most overlooked aspects of Moore’s Law is the economic component. Moore predicted not only that the number of transistors on a chip would double every two years, but also that they would do so for the same cost — making transistors continually cheaper.
It’s this economic aspect that is under the greatest threat. If the cost of producing smaller transistors makes them more expensive, then the entire model will need to change.
Similarly, the viability of quantum computers will depend as much on cost as it will on research breakthroughs, both the cost of producing feasible prototypes and the cost versus return calculations for organizations that want to implement these innovations.
Quantum scientists are cautious about making bold predictions, but they have big hopes for the technology and agree that certain areas will be affected sooner than others.
Materials science, optimization and cryptography are likely to benefit the most, and the soonest, from quantum computing. Additional areas, such as searching through Big Data and machine learning could also benefit from the quantum advantage.
Quantum computing could also affect industries far beyond the obvious, reaching virtually any area where computing speed and power are critical, from pharmaceutical and financial services to travel and transportation.
Just as development of the Internet benefited from early emphasis on openness, the current state of quantum research is characterized by a culture of cooperation. By businesses working together with academic and scientific colleagues, quantum computers provide the possibility of solving what is today unsolvable.
Previously published on Forbes, December 8, 2015.