Monday, March 27, 2017

Quantum Computing: A Computing Revolution in the 21st Century

It was 1946 when the first digital computer appeared on the earth. A decade later, John Backus at IBM coined the first programming language, FORTRAN, and since then, our reality, in nearly all industries, has been overwritten by digital bits — zeros and ones. Computers, from a cell phone to a supercomputer, have become our lifeline. There are 2 billion personal computers worldwide, which is more than a quarter of the world population. This digital revolution will be likely superseded by the quantum computing innovation, one of the most promising technologies in the 21st century.

The concept of quantum computing was proposed in the 1980s. By capturing the uncertainty of molecules at absolute zero (-273℃), scientists succeeded to create a computing apparatus that brings us to the next level. In 2017, such studies are about to bear fruit. D-Wave, the first company that aims for the commercial use of this technology, exhibited satisfying benchmark results that their quantum computer solved certain problems one million times faster than a conventional computer. In March, IBM declared the plan that they will bring a quantum computer, “IBM Q” system, to market in a few years. They note, “quantum computers will deliver solutions to important problems where patterns cannot be seen because the data doesn’t exist and the possibilities that you need to explore to get to the answer are too enormous to ever be processed by classical computers.” (IBM, 2017)

Conventional, or “classic” computers are based on transistors, in which each “bit,” the smallest unit of memory, has a binary state, a “0” or a “1.” Although computers have become significantly more powerful, smaller, and cheaper for the last several decades, they cannot flee from the fetters of the binary system. Quantum computers, in contrast, store information into a “qubit,” which can be represented by an atom in ambiguous states, say, a “0” or “1” or “0 and 1.” And, most importantly, those computers are able to calculate such different universes simultaneously, thus greatly compressing the computation time.

I enjoy Japanese chess —shogi— in my free time. It has more complex rules than Western chess does: in shogi, on a little larger nine-by-nine board, we can promote and strengthen a piece, capture an opponent’s piece, and use it under your control. Specifically, shogi has 10 to the 71st of possible states, whereas Western chess has 10 to the 47th. But what do these numbers mean in terms of computation?

I assume you have once played tic-tac-toe, which has 765 possibly different positions. If you have a computer that calculates the best move for each position respectively in one millisecond (a thousandth of a second), you can obtain the perfect answer immediately because 765 millisecond is shorter than a second. Chess and shogi, however, require an astronomical amount of time. In fact, it is more than astronomical. 1047 milliseconds is equivalent to 1036 (1000000000000000000000000000000000000) years. The earth is barely 4.5 billion years old. The whole universe is said to have the history of fewer than 1011 years. Our planets are babies compared to the time necessary to be omnipotent in the board game.

Like chess and shogi, a certain type of problem is theoretically able to be solved, but practically unsolvable because of time. Were you to purchase thousands of cutting-edge supercomputers, you would likely be able to remove some zeros in the number of “years for computing” but would never see the result while you are alive. Therefore, computer scientists have devoted their time to inventing algorithmic devices and estimating the result by employing statistical approaches. But what if a new technology shifts paradigms and changes the laws of the universe?

Quantum computing is, of course, not exclusive to board games. It will unravel the mystery of our DNA, helping invent more effective medicine. The technology will augment artificial intelligence, which would read our subtle nuances rather than “yes” or “no.” Quantum computers will also enable us to decipher any transactions on the Internet in a moment’s notice. All of the online encryption technology is underpinned by “practically” irreversible keys, so-named because of classic computing limitations. Once this assumption overturns, our privacy and a country’s cyber-security will be vulnerable. I am quite sure that this will become a fierce, controversial issue among politicians around the world.

Some take another view on this technology. In the Guardian’s article “Has the age of quantum computing arrived?” MIT professor Scott Aaronson, who has dubbed himself Chief D-Wave Sceptic,” says, “there was no reason to believe they played a casual role or that they were faster than a classical computer.” (Anthony, 2016) Quantum computing is still in the early stage of developing, and the company D-Wave has long been “accused of hype and exaggeration.” (Anthony, 2016)

Also, like the decryption issue, ethics matters. Quantum computing is so powerful that we should handle it properly, ethically, and openly. With no exception, technology is a double-edged sword. Is quantum computing a savior or a devil? Or something ambiguous between them like us, human beings? The answer is not a “0” or “1.”

Works Cited

IBM. "IBM Unveils Roadmap for Commercial." IBM News Room - 2017-03-06 IBM Building First Universal Quantum Computers for Business and Science - United States. IBM, 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

Anthony, Andrew. "Has the Age of Quantum Computing Arrived?" The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 22 May 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.