In the science world, there’s a famous saying: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
Attributed to the physicist Richard Feynman, the Yogi Berra-like quote also holds true for quantum computing. In other words, there is a lot we know about the potential of quantum computing, but it’s nothing compared to what we don’t yet know.
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Experts say it will still be years before there is a viable quantum computer, but most agree they could change the world. Here is a look at what quantum computing is, where it’s headed, and what its possibilities will mean for everyday life.
What Is Quantum Computing?
One of the first things to know about quantum computing is that much is simply unknown. Scientists can theorize about how quantum computing would work and what it could mean, but it won’t become truth until it actually happens.
Here’s what is known: Current computing devices use the binary machine language, which employs combinations of zeros and ones. Those two simple numbers can be combined and manipulated to make devices do any number of things, from taking a photo to searching the web. Those codes made up of zeros and ones are called “bits.”
A quantum computer uses quantum bits, otherwise known as qubits. In the quantum world, particles can encounter the unique phenomena of superposition and entanglement.
Superposition means being in multiple states at the same time — both here and there, up and down, etc. It sounds like magic, but it’s true. Two places at once.
To relate it to the tangible world, scientists have compared this to a light switch. In the binary world, there are two options, on or off. But in the quantum world, the light could be both on and off at the same time.
Meanwhile, entanglement is when two or more quantum particles are linked in perfect unison, even at a distance — as far as opposite sides of the universe.
This all leads back to quantum computing. While the computers we have now work with zeros and ones, quantum computers could use zeros, ones, and superpositions of zeroes and ones. That could make computing power grow exponentially and help scientists solve problems they’ve never before fathomed.
What Will Quantum Computers Do?
Quantum computers will most likely impact the security and encryption industry first.
As it stands, present-day encryption uses a large public key accessible by anyone that encodes things such as credit card information. That key is the product of two incredibly large prime numbers, which are only known by the seller.
On one hand, because quantum computers, in theory, would be able to factor even greater numbers in minuscule amounts of time, quantum computers could exploit the old technology we currently use.
On the other hand, quantum computing would lead to a whole new level of highly secure cryptography.
The possibilities are endless. Quantum computers will be used for things that people haven’t even imagined yet. As Canada’s University of Waterloo puts it, the scientists who invented the laser most likely didn’t think the technology would be used for everything from eye surgery to CD players to checkout scanners at the local grocery store.
For now, other potential uses of quantum computing include ultra-accurate weather forecasting, better air traffic control, and improved military and defense analysis.
There are even hopes quantum computers could help solve large worldwide problems, such as how to efficiently and effectively remove carbon from the air.
What Are the Challenges?
One of the main challenges of building quantum computers is dealing with qubits. To build one, scientists need qubits that behave the way they want them to, but that’s much easier said than done.
The thing about qubits is any manipulation or disturbance causes them to lose their quantum state, which would naturally make them useless for quantum computing. One of the main challenges scientists are tackling now is finding ways to successfully manipulate qubits.
Scientists began theorizing about quantum computing in the 1970s and early 1980s, yet we’re still years away from a fully functioning quantum computer. That’s not to say that quantum technologies don’t exist. For example, scientists are working on quantum encryption using satellites.
Another challenge for quantum computing is the waiting game. While we’re still years away from a fully functional quantum computer, we’re even further away from such a device at the consumer level.
There is a glimmer of hope, however. If and when a quantum computer is built, in theory, it would have capabilities many times more powerful than those of even today’s fastest computers. That means when — or if — quantum computers come to fruition, their capabilities would allow scientists to quickly find new uses for the emerging technology.
But we don’t know what we don’t know. Thus is the quagmire of quantum computers.