April 20, 2024

Who’s afraid of quantum computing?

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The road to a quantum future may be longer and more winding than some expect, but the potential it holds is profound, writes UTS Associate Professor Chris Ferrie.

If the Sydney Harbor Bridge were rebuilt today, engineers would design, build and test the new bridge in virtual worlds before a clod of earth was moved.

Digital simulation has revolutionized science and technology, improving efficiency, reducing costs and significantly mitigating risks.

You could also do the same with medicine.

Today, drugs are not designed or “discovered” because digital computers cannot simulate molecular interactions within the human body and therefore cannot provide invaluable insights that would drive the development of new treatments and cures.

Herein lies the promise of quantum computers.

In the future, chemistry will be simulated on quantum computers to design and test new drugs, materials and new exotic forms of matter.

Only time will tell if this will be a utopia, an apocalyptic technological scenario or simply the mundane and constant march of progress.

A quantum algorithm is a set of step-by-step instructions that changes quantum information, just as a conventional algorithm is a set of step-by-step instructions that changes digital information (the bits and bytes of your mobile phone and other computers). .

Quantum information is encoded by the fine details of energy and matter, revealed over the last century by quantum physics and controllable by precision engineering at a microscopic scale.

Instead of the 0s and 1s of digital technology, quantum bits (or qubits) can be represented by long lists of numbers.

In the 1990s, it was discovered that some problems could be solved in far fewer steps if they were encoded in qubits instead of bits.

This shortcut was so attractive that an international scientific effort began building machines to do it quickly and reliably.

These machines are called quantum computers, and 30 years later, proof-of-principle prototype devices have been successfully built.

Quantum computing researchers have compiled a list, called the Zoo of Quantum Algorithms, of more than 60 quantum algorithms that are believed to execute in fewer steps than the best classical algorithm for the same problem.

The first on the list is also the most famous: Shor’s factorization algorithm. Factoring is the process of dividing a large number (such as 21) into smaller numbers that produce it through multiplication (21 = 7 × 3).

For a very large number, this is such a difficult problem for digital computers that the vast majority of communication systems (such as the Internet) use it for security reasons.

However, Shor’s algorithm requires many fewer steps to solve the problem, which is very important for privacy and security.

Many problems can be considered as a search for the best solution among a large list of possible solutions.

Grover’s search algorithm is another famous quantum algorithm that requires fewer steps to arrive at an answer than a classical search algorithm for especially difficult problems.

It is not yet known which real-world problems will produce significant practical advantage, but hard problems of this type abound in critical areas such as climate modeling, financial portfolio optimization, and artificial intelligence.

More recently, researchers have suggested and provided evidence for leading examples of training quantum devices to learn through examples, which could usher in a new artificial intelligence paradigm.

Accurately simulating chemical interactions requires calculations derived from quantum physics theory. These are needed to design new medicines, fertilizers, batteries and other materials.

The details of how practical a quantum computer might be in a particular case have yet to be worked out, but a programmable quantum computer could virtually mimic the real world at this fundamental level in principle.

Often, the true transformative power of a technology lies not in its immediate applications, but in those that cannot be foreseen.

Reflecting on the early days of the Internet, few could have predicted the arrival of online shopping, social media or streaming services.

Similarly, while quantum technology is anticipated to revolutionize fields such as cryptography, drug discovery, and climate modeling, its ultimate impact could be something that cannot yet be conceived.

With all this potential comes a lot of publicity. But that must be tempered with a dose of reality.

Over the past decade, quantum computers have been slowly trickling out of university physics departments and into the engineering labs of large multinational corporations and start-ups.

Research has moved from pure scientific discovery to serving specific engineering challenges. In fact, these are some of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced.

Currently, quantum computers require extremely low temperatures or an ultra-high vacuum to operate.

The degrees of freedom that encode quantum information are fragile: every stray particle they come into contact with is likely to cause an irreparable error.

While the lifetime of a bit that currently encodes our digital information may be billions of years, the lifetime of today’s qubits is a thousandth of a second.

Still, there has been steady progress toward improving quantum technology in recent decades.

History teaches us that technological transitions tend to be slower than initial expectations predict. The transition to quantum technology will not be like flipping a switch: it will still be a gradual process.

To put all of this into perspective, remember that fear often arises from the unknown.

The complexities of quantum technology may be overwhelming, but that does not mean they are insurmountable.

The road to a quantum future may be longer and more winding than some expect, but the potential it holds is profound. Therefore, humanity should approach this emerging technology with a realistic but optimistic lens.

Who is afraid of quantum technology? Perhaps those who fear change, the unknown or the challenges that inevitably accompany technological advances.

However, embracing quantum technology could be less about overcoming fear and more about fostering understanding, encouraging patience, and keeping an open mind to the limitless possibilities this technology promises to bring.

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