Quantum computing (QC) may prove the next major step in technology, as it even surpasses the value of super computers. Sam Holland looks at QC and considers both the capabilities and the downfalls that may come with it.
An introduction to quantum computing
Quantum computing, or QC for short, is the process by which the uncertainty principle of the quantum state of atoms is utilised for computing purposes in the form of qubits (quantum bits). This allows quantum computers to process far more calculations than even the most advanced supercomputers, as the latter only use binary digits (the bits expressed as 1s and 0s).
The processing power of quantum computers is such that certain problems – that would otherwise be considered intractable, or even impossible – may be calculated by exploiting the QC process known as ‘quantum entanglement’. The true potential of quantum computing will become more clear as its applications become better utilised with time, but researchers such as MIT stress that it is set to bring about unprecedented developments, such as those in the industrial, healthcare, and statistical spheres. And as mentioned on IoT Insider’s sister publication Electronic Specifier before, just some of QC’s research areas cover robotics, pharmaceuticals, and predictive modelling across the board.
The problem, however, is that quantum computing is – as many publications refer to it – nascent. The term nascent is defined as ‘just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential’. The combination of immense computing power and such nascent hardware raises, not only technological concerns, but concerns over the very applications of QC. The next two sections covers the former and the latter, respectively.
Technological and applications concerns
Of course, even looking at the below picture of a quantum computer may conjure up concerns over ‘noise’, namely a problematic level of electromagnetic interference, or EMI. The hardware is formed of countless wires because each of the computing inputs must accommodate both positive and negative outcomes. Again, this is in stark contrast to what transistors of classical computers carry out, as they only calculate binary information.
Consider the fact that even basic commercial computers encounter EMI and overheating problems that may stem from both internal and external hardware. And while both these concerns may be circumvented with EMF (electric and magnetic fields) pads and improved fan and component ventilation, the hardware demands are another matter entirely in the context of quantum computing. For quantum computers to utilise qubits, those qubits must be contained in specialised cooling systems known as dilution refrigerators.
Dilution refrigerators are cryogenic technologies that perform chemical reactions using two helium isotopes (3He and 4He) to reach temperatures as low as 1.5 Kelvin (equal to −272.15°C). Plus, even at this temperature, EMI noise may still pose a problem according to a paper (links to PDF) on IBM quantum computers published in the American Journal of Physics. “Noise,” as the AJP researchers explain, “can come from systematic sources, such as noise introduced by hardware imperfections.” In fact, they go on to say that the very qubits themselves may cause disturbances: “Quantum noise from fluctuations in the phase and amplitude of the physical qubit … have an effect even at zero temperature.”
Questions of scalability and potential misuse
The innumerable hardware demands that arise from simply containing and controlling qubits, along with of course the computation around them, form one of the many reasons that the very scalability of QC is heavily debated. On top of this, even if quantum computing were to thrive in an industrial, and possibly even commercial setting (which IBM itself says will eventually happen), it will doubtlessly be met with controversy. And this controversy relates to cyber security applications: consider the question of how well cryptocurrencies will fare if or when there is no longer a system of private keys that will only need to be defensive against classical computers.
The prospective advent of mainstream quantum computers may provide hackers with the tools to commit ‘quantum hacking’ crimes, wherein the countless computing inputs offered by QC could compromise what were once considered ‘unhackable’ forms of data.
As with so many revolutionary technologies, the concerns of quantum computing can be reflected by two key questions: How well will (or even can) quantum computing be scaled? And if it ever is scaled in ways that can bring it to the mainstream, what if it falls into the wrong hands?
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