Shame then that some of the biggest tech companies in the world are invested in a race to unveil the world’s first viable quantum computer 

We are on the cusp of computer technology that defies any semblance of logic. For those wondering, quantum computing is a new type of computing architecture that will make our devices thousands of times faster than they are today. If you, like us, are wondering how that’s even possible given that our computers are incredibly fast already, here’s a quick primer on quantum computing: In order to solve a problem, the computers we currently use rely on their ability to run through a whole host of all possible solutions until it finds one that works.

For example, if you’re looking for a name on a phonebook of seven million names, you’d have to go through each name one at a time until you find a match. Similarly, classic computers work using bits – single pieces of information that exists as either one or zero. However, quantum bits (qubits) can exist as both zeros and ones simultaneously, thanks to quantum superposition. In simple English, a quantum computer is capable of checking for all possible solutions to a problem at one time.

Now, this may not be a big deal for the average user who spends his time browsing or working on excel, and that’s okay. Quantum computers aren’t for browsing the Internet, checking email, or running standard software. Instead, they rely on the underpinnings of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that’s defied conventional understanding for about 100 years, to manipulate individual particles and solve previously unsolvable problems. Therefore, the time it takes to crunch a data set is significantly reduced. We create about 2.5 exabytes of data every day. That number is equivalent to the content on 5 million laptops. Quantum computers will make it possible to process the amount of data we’re generating in the age of big data.

It’s not all good news though. With great power comes great responsibility and this perceived superpower could pose a major threat to cyber security. For those who aren’t privy to the inner workings of cyber security, encryption algorithms in today’s world rely on tedious math problems that are impossible to solve. Most feature numbers that are hundreds of digits long. Something like that would be a cakewalk for a single quantum computer. As such, quantum computers would be able to crack many of today’s encryption techniques and render our entire system of cyber security obsolete. The hope is that these quantum computers will help create new, quantum methods of encryption that would, in theory, be hack-proof. Still, the fear is that they will be used for bad before they’re used for good.

Quantum computing and Bitcoin

The Bitcoin and quantum computing link

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where Bitcoin could suffer. You see, the scorching-hot cryptocurrency – which is now valued at a new all-time high of over $9,710.39 – works on a little technology known as blockchain – the decentralized digital ledger tech is built upon a peer-to-peer network, and it is far more secure than the centralized systems used by traditional banks and financial institutions. According to a study by Divesh Aggarwal and his colleagues from the National University of Singapore (NUS), quantum computers could undermine and even exploit Bitcoin’s security protocols. Maybe you should use your bitcoin to buy that Dubai apartment sooner rather than later. As mentioned previously, Bitcoin isn’t the only phenomenon that could suffer.

But if quantum computers are such a threat, why are Google, IBM and Intel embroiled in a race to one-up each other to unveil the world’s first viable quantum computer? Well, aside from the benefits already mentioned, there’s a growing fear that the digital boom will come to a standstill within the next 25 years or so. Not because our computers aren’t good enough but because there will not be enough electricity to power all the world’s computers. According to the Washington DC-based Semiconductor Industry Association and the Semiconductor Research Corporation, if current trends continue, we will be running short of electricity to power these machines by as soon as 2040.

That’s where quantum computing comes in. In contrast to a traditional supercomputer that consumes about 2,898.3kW of power, D-Wave’s – the company that bestowed upon the world its first commercially available quantum computer –  2000Q only consumes 25kW of power.

Quantum computing infographic

Where quantum computing suffers

That’s not to say regular commuters are going to be replaced altogether. As implausible as it sounds, classic computers – or computers as we know them right now – are better at some tasks than quantum computers (email, spreadsheets and desktop publishing to name a few). In fact, quantum computers of today are very fragile. Any kind of vibration impacts the atoms and causes decoherence. Moreover, they have to be kept extremely cold to run properly. That’s precisely why the inside of D-Wave Systems’ quantum computer is kept at a balmy .02 degrees Kelvin. That’s about -460 degrees Fahrenheit. To put that into perspective, zero degrees Kelvin, or absolute zero, is the coldest temperature that can possibly be measured. It’s the temperature at which every single atom that constitutes an object stops moving, and therefore stops generating heat.

It’s not feasible to continue investing in quantum computing if they only work in those specialised environments. Hence to race for quantum computing. In March this year, researchers from Google’s Quantum AI Laboratory went on record to say that the company would produce a viable quantum computer within the next five years. They also added that they would reach “quantum supremacy” with a 50-qubit quantum computer. The top supercomputers can still manage everything a five- to 20-qubit quantum computer can, but will be surpassed by a machine with 50 qubits and will attain supremacy at that point. Earlier this month, IBM announced a quantum computer that handles 50 qubits. While it may seem like IBM beat Google to the punch, the announcement does not mean quantum computing is ready for common use. IBM’s version is largely unfinished with its fair share of glitches. Nonetheless, 50 qubits is a significant landmark in progress toward practical quantum computers.

It’s no accident that these two announcements arrived at about the same time. A true quantum computer is not yet a reality. But after years spent developing quantum technologies, IBM is also trying to prevent Google, a relative newcomer to the field, from stealing its quantum mindshare. And it’s still unclear whether the claims made by these two companies will hold up. When you stop to consider the fact that these two tech goliaths are using a method pioneered by Yale University professor Robert Schoelkopf to build the world’s first quantum computer, and Schoelkopf himself has started his own quantum-computing company, Quantum Circuits and is backed by $18 million in funding from the venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital and others, the realisation dawns upon you that quantum computing, like the quantum state itself, remains uncertain.