Quantum leap spells new age of computing

Spooky: Qubits can also exist in two places at once, so could be at 1 and 0 simultaneously.

Will quantum computers change the world for the better? IBM has built the most powerful quantum computer ever. The technology has a long way to go, but some think it will change everything.

From medicine to weather forecasting, there is almost no part of human life that quantum computers do not promise to revolutionise.

And they have just taken a big step forward. International Business Machines (IBM) have built the biggest quantum computer ever. While it is not perfected, IBM scientist Dario Gil claims future models will perform tasks forever “beyond the practical reach of classical machines”.

It all comes down to physics. Traditional computers process information in sequences of zeroes and ones, otherwise known as bits. Quantum computers are based on things called qubits. Due to the laws of quantum mechanics, qubits can encode information as zeroes, ones, or anything in between, all at the same time.

When fully operational, quantum computers will have trillions of times more processing power than normal computers.

And their potential uses are astonishing. Quantum weather forecasting could save lives and money by precisely predicting extreme weather and creating models to fight climate change. The UK’s weather service, the Met Office, has already invested in quantum computing to improve its forecasts.

Quantum computers could also develop lifesaving medicines by instantly performing trillions of chemical simulations. In fact, according to Professor Jeremy O’Brien, they could theoretically design "any material for any purpose”.

But there is also a dark side. Computers could become powerful enough to break the security codes that keep money and personal information safe. A report by the Global Risk Institute claimed that there is a one-in-seven chance that “fundamental” cryptography tools will be obsolete by 2026. This rises to a 50% chance by 2031.

They may even ignite a new arms race. A document leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed that America’s National Security Agency (NSA) invested $80 million in a quantum computing program called “Penetrating Hard Targets”. At the same time, arms company Lockheed Martin is using the technology to improve its fighter jets.

So will quantum computers change the world for the better?

PC power

Of course, say some. The invention of the computer revolutionised almost every form of life and work on the planet. Imagine the same happening again, but on an even bigger scale. Quantum computers promise boundless knowledge. And knowledge brings the power to do amazing things.

Yes, but also the power to do bad, others respond. Individual privacy has already eroded in the digital age, and in the wrong hands quantum computers could gather even more information about us. And what’s to stop a rogue state using them to develop weapons of mass destruction? Humanity is not ready to have such powerful technology.

You Decide

  1. Will quantum computers be good or bad for society?
  2. Can too much information be harmful?

Activities

  1. If you could use a quantum computer to find out one thing about the world, what would you try to find out?
  2. Follow the first link in Become An Expert and watch the video explaining how quantum computing works. After you have watched it, turn to a classmate and explain to them how quantum computers work in your own words.

Some People Say...

“Quantum technology turns ordinary reality upside down.”

Michael Crichton

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
IBM’s new computer is only capable of staying in quantum mode for very short periods of time. Also the number of qubits in a computer does not directly translate to computational power as it depends on the quality of the links established between the qubits. Quantum computers are still extremely rudimentary and are not ready for widespread domestic use.
What do we not know?
We do not know when the technology will become efficient and inexpensive enough to be widely used. Once quantum computers become operational they may have applications that have not yet been predicted.

Word Watch

International Business Machines
American technology company founded in 1911. It had a revenue of almost $80 billion in 2016.
Biggest
The computer uses 50 quantum bits, or qubits. Google is also aiming to have a 49-qubit computer working by the end of the year.
Perfected
The computer only achieved a quantum state for 90 microseconds. This is a record for the industry, but still a long way off from a fully functioning quantum computer.
Quantum mechanics
Tiny particles like electrons and photons can occupy two different places at the same time; this is known as superposition.
Money
Rodney Weiher from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, estimates that 30% of America’s GDP ($6 trillion) is affected directly and indirectly by the weather.
Report
Written by Michele Mosca, co-founder of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.
Leaked
In 2013 Edward Snowden, a former NSA sub-contractor, leaked thousands of classified documents to journalists which detailed global surveillance run by the US government.