Welcome to the age of quantum computing

Written by Leithland Thomas

Director, Application Arcitecture at Fundserv Inc.

 

Every so often we have a leap in technology that fundamentally propels our understanding of the world around us. One such recent momentous leap is in quantum computing – which represents a technological advancement on the scale of the invention of electricity.

Since the ‘60’s Moore’s law has predicted that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double about every 24 months. A transistor is a basic component that allows information to flow through a computer circuit. The information that flows through the transistors are represented as 1’s and 0’s. Transistors are combined together to form logic gates that perform basic functions, the gates are then combined together to do more complex processing. The more transistors on a circuit, the more powerful the circuit. Thus increasing the amount of transistors leads to a sustained increase in computer performance. In order to sustain this sort of performance gains, computer chip makers have had to continually shrink the size and number of the transistors on a computer chip.

The Intel® 8088 chip, introduced in 1979 contained 29,000 transistors. The latest Intel® computer chips are well in excess of several billion transistors which is an incredible feat of engineering, and miniaturization. Modern transistors are approaching nano size, as small as 7 nanometer. 1 nanometer is equivalent to 1/1,000,000,000th of a meter. To put this in perspective, the ebolavirus is roughly 80 nanometer, perhaps a better reference to provide scale is the thickness of a single human hair which is about 80,000 – 100,000 nanometer thick.

Quantum weirdness

As we approach atomic size, strange things start to happen, the world of classical physics gives way to the weird and wonderful world of quantum mechanics. In some ways, to wrap your head around quantum mechanics, you need to disavow yourself of what we consider to be “normal” in the observable world. In the observable world, things have a definitive discrete state. We’ve been taught that you are either dead or alive, here or there, but it’s not possible to be in two states at once. Then along comes quantum mechanics that turns these “normal” notions upside down. According to quantum mechanics, at the atomic level, a particle can be in multiple states simultaneously, it can be both here and there – this condition is called “Superposition”.

“Superposition” frees us from the binary world of yes “or” no, and allows yes “and” no as possibilities. In classic computing the “yes” and “no” are represented by 1’s and 0’s, also called bits. In quantum computing, qubits are analogous to bits in classical computing – with the exception that it’s possible to be both 1 and 0 at the same time. If it’s not weird enough that a particle can be in multiple states, there’s also the notion of “entanglement”, something that Einstein famously called “spooky”. Entanglement is a “property that the particles always ‘know’ about each other, even if they are separated by huge distances

In quantum physics, “entangled” particles are strongly correlated meaning that the value of a particle can be deduced from the value of the observed entangled particle. This is an important attribute of quantum computer.

But why is this important? In a quantum system having two entangled qubits, the computer need only look at one of the qubit to deduce the value of the other entangled qubit. In classic computing the computer needs to look at each bit to deduce their values. The implication of this becomes even more apparent when you increase the number of qubits, the correlations grow exponentially –  “to describe a system of 300 qubits you’d already need more numbers than there are atoms in the visible universe.” Because quantum computers try all possibilities at the same time, they are able to solve problems that are difficult for current computers. Not only are they able to solve difficult problems, but they do it fast, real fast. According to a recent story in wired.co.uk “Last year, a team of Google and Nasa scientists found a D-Wave quantum computer was 100 million times faster than a conventional computer.” This kind of computing power promises to solve some of our most intractable scientific problems.

The promise of quantum computing

Harnessing “quantum peculiarit[ies] allows the computer to find patterns in huge data sets very quickly” this has great promise for solving some of our most challenging problems such as medical research and cancer treatment, climate change research, material science – in search of new exotic materials, deep space exploration, creation of new devices, and a myriad of inventions that we cannot currently conceive of.

Some of the most promising research is coming out of Google, IBM, Microsoft, and NASA. NASA’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (QuAIL) is leveraging D-Wave’s quantum computer, a Canadian firm based out of British Columbia, to solve difficult optimisation problems, quantum AI algorithms, and a host of other interesting research that will have implications on our day-to-day lives. Some of this early research provides a glimpse into what is possible with quantum computing.

Though the future promise of quantum computing is bright, it also expose weaknesses in the way we currently secure information. Current security systems such as SSL, HTTPS, etc are based largely on number theories and prime factorization. The main mathematical challenge in breaking current cryptographic codes is the factoring of very large numbers. This is very difficult for classic computers as it has to try billions upon billions of combinations after combinations. Thus it’s relatively secure given current computing capabilities. According to The New Yorker “it took about two years on hundreds of computers to unlock a single instance of the RSA-768 algorithm, which, as its name suggests, requires a key that is seven hundred and sixty-eight bits long.” A quantum computer on the other hand, would make relatively short work of this – thus it poses challenges to current security regimes. To head off the threats of quantum computers to present security systems

“Cryptologist at the CSE (Canada’s Communications Security 
Establishment) and around the world are racing against time, 
said Greta Bossenmaier, CSE chief, to develop a new cryptographic 
standard before what has been called Y2Q or years to quantum, 
which is predicted to be around 2026. The CSE is Canada’s 
primary security agency.”

http://www.vanguardcanada.com/

We are starting to see crypto systems being built based on quantum ideas such as Quantum Key Distribution that uses quantum mechanics to build keys, rather than relying on hard mathematics.

It’s hard to predict when Y2Q will be upon us, but research and development in this area is progressing in quantum leaps and bounds. We expect to see solutions to some of our most intractable problems, discovery of new materials, exploration of deep space, and a myriad of new discoveries. Quantum computing promises to open up unimaginable possibilities, and a greater understanding of our world. This is no longer science fiction, the future is now.