James Dargan

@jimdargan

Will Quantum Computers Ever Replace The Humble PC in Our Living Rooms?

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

Once only accessible to researchers at universities around the world, beginning in the late 1970s, the PC — due to a shift in size and cost — became easily available to the masses. Now that we are on the cusp of the age of quantum computers, will the same thing happen to them?

Early Dawn

‘The future isn’t what it used to be’, French poet Paul Valery once said, and this statement couldn’t be truer than today. We are on the rise, humanity, that is, and it’s all because of the new horizon of technology, a giant of the future, quantum computers, that is the cause. Years ago, in the embryonic days of computer development, the dream of mathematicians and scientists was humble enough: to number crunch simple computational operations. Konrad Zuse’s Z4, built in 1944, was such a machine. From that, scores of rudimentary computers followed in Z4’s wake.

Konrad Zuse’s Z4 computer. Source: alamy stock photo

Later, in the 1960s, two computer scientists, Thomas E. Kurtz and John G. Kemeny, based at Dartmouth College, developed and authored the BASIC language, a simple computer language which allowed ordinary people without specialist knowledge to computer program. Since those salad days, the development of traditional computers has moved on into areas those first pioneers could only have dreamed about.

It was forward and then up, and beyond that, too.

From the 1950s to the watershed period of the mid-1970s, the so-called ‘powerful computers’ were exclusively in the hands of computer scientists and other specialists at esteemed places of higher learning like MIT, Stanford and Oxford. Then, a miracle occurred: computers become smaller and cheaper. Machines like the Apple II and Commodore’s PET democratized the use of computers, making them available to everyone.

Hooray.

Mindblowing

These days, ‘quantum’ is a byword for where we are going, although the technology is still in its genesis. To understand quantum computers and what — if our minds and design applications get to grips with them — they can do for us is mindblowing. Quantum theory, fathered by the geniuses of our age Max Planck and Albert Einstein amongst others, is for many a subject so difficult to understand, so sheathed in intellectual rhetoric that it frightens the life out of many if only because of its sheer incomprehensibility. NASA, along with tech giants IBM and Google, is pumping its unlimited tech dollars into the quest to understand and use quantum technology to build a new type of computer. In China, too, things are gaining momentum in this sphere.

A quantum race could very much be on the cards.

With governments and tech companies leading the way, there is no doubt that in the years and decades to come the world of quantum computers will, like their classic brethren, become more ‘the norm’. There are some computer scientists and quantum physicists out there who believe the practical use of this technology is closer to realization than we think.

Just watch this space.

Quantumordinary

The binary system of 1or 0 is the operational modality of classical computation, which in its essence is based on how the human mind operates. In stark contrast, quantum computers are modeled on the laws according to the universe. In this system, all the operational complexities of the classical model are included yet with the incorporation of the laws of quantum physics, too.

The binary system, the model for classical computers. Source: Facebook

In quantum computing, the ‘qubit’ has replaced the’ bit’, which is used in the binary system of the classical model. The result of using qubits instead of bits is the same regarding the number of qubits you get by adding to the chain. What makes qubits — and the quantum model extraordinary (or should I say quantumordinary) — is the fact that two radical events occur to the qubits that do not transpire in classical computer models, the phenomena of ‘superposition’ and ‘entanglement’. Here, the laws of physics take a very spooky and irregular path. In plain English, and without decorating the description with any scientific accouterments, in the quantum model superposition, or ‘superposition of states’, means the qubit, as opposed to a bit, can be both 1 and 0 at the same time, rather than in one state of a bit. Subsequently, entanglement is the event when two qubits get ‘entangled’ with each other, regardless of spatial parity between the two phenomena (which are not really phenomena but a unified phenomenon).

Qubits Entangled — don’t worry, I don’t understand it either. Source: MIT Technology Review

With this in mind, it is difficult to comprehend how we can know such anomalies and then go on to construct a computer which can manipulate these occurrences in the quantum world for our benefit.

“Quantum physics is a bit of a passion of mine. It’s extraordinary. There’s a branch of mathematics that is based on lunacy, and that’s wonderful.”
- Bob Hoskins

As We Speak

And yet it’s happening. Right here, right now, in 2019. As of speaking, we are at the starting point, admittedly, but nonetheless, we are getting there. Somewhere down the line, just as many AI researchers espouse about the approaching Singularity, or Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme of manned missions to Mars, quantum computers will be here.

But will they be for everyone? And if so, will they be as useful as classical computers have been for humanity over the last five or so decades?

The New PC?

One of the key areas computer scientists believe quantum computers will be useful in the future is in cryptography. Currently, classical computers — as is the case with cryptocurrency and the underlying technology of how it operates, blockchain — are unable to break the codes. Scientists and cryptocurrency advocates fear, and quite rightly so, that the introduction and widespread use of quantum computers and the power they have will make blockchains secured by classical computer cryptographic operations breakable, rendering them useless in a security sense. This, in turn, is motivating researchers to develop encryption methods (based on the idea of quantum blockchains, a simple case of like for like) that oppose the threat of quantum attacks and other virtual malefactions.

As well as in cryptocurrency, specialists also surmise quantum computers will have their uses in medicine, the future applications of neural networks for artificial intelligence and other areas of science.

Yet what about us? Will they affect our lives? Will we, like with classical computer models, be able to use them?

For Everybody

The answer to the last question, at least, can be answered. In 2016 the tech giant IBM created the Q Experience quantum computer which possesses two 5-qubit processors and a 16-qubit processor as well as being open access and free to use for everybody. Measuring it up to what they will probably be able to do and how they will look in the years to come, it isn’t very powerful, but this device, based in the cloud, can be used by anyone with the ability to construct and run quantum circuits. Not bad, methinks.

Google, however — in a prime example of oneupmanship — has created its own quantum computer, called Bristlecone, a 72-qubit gate-based superconducting system that beats IBM by a mile and also confounds the specialists who believed 50 qubits was entering ‘quantum supremacy’.

Even more recently is the case of IonQ, a quantum computing hardware and software company based in Maryland, which late in 2018 claimed it is developing a quantum computer which could go up to 160 qubits, smashing current claims on processor capacity.

Whatever happens, it’s surely a wild west scenario.

So, mirroring the late 70s and early 1980s, when the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad 64 became the norm in people’s homes, maybe soon enough — or is that a pipe dream — quantum computers will be in everybody’s living rooms or some other conveniently located place.

ZX Spectrum, a classic PC. Source: Wikipedia

The age of quantum computers has begun. As we shift from the classical model to this new, quantum model, only time will tell how we will use them.

But whatever it is, I hope it is for the moral side of creative.

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