Geek Out Disclaimer: You may have heard about the new quantum computer just created or you may not have! We think quantum mechanics is super cool and promises great things for the future! We’re seeing huge implications in computer security, time keeping, and medicine. Fair warning – it’s a long journey down the rabbit hole. If you’re ready to nerd out with us, keep reading!
A Computer That Both Matters and Doesn’t at the Same Time
Quantum computers are finally here and yet the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat remains uncertain. Was the cat simultaneously alive and dead? We need to know! Luckily, this new technology promises answers to so many questions humankind has been asking and unable to solve for decades.
The word quantum may frighten you. You may think anything including that word in its name is automatically incomprehensible unless you have a Ph.D. in physics. Well, we are here to alleviate some of your worries and explain to you some of the very basics of quantum computing and why it is so important.
Starting with the word itself, quantum derives from the Latin word quantus, meaning “how much,” which pairs directly with this first principle. Energy from quantum fields will always come in integer multiples, never fractions or radical numbers. Now, after writing that sentence, we realized that it did not seem like a simplified explanation at all. Let’s try again. Rephrased, the prior statement basically means, “there are valid values of energy and invalid values of energy.” Why is this important? The variants in energy levels allow for physicists to delve into low-energy things such as dark matter or black-body radiation, objects that absorb all the radiation they encounter. In addition, quantum computers indicate the possibility of cracking invincible codes and cyphers, drastically changing the world of security and cryptography, through calculations far beyond the world’s fastest super computer. Now, to us this is pretty neat.
The best description of quantum computing comes from Isaac Chuang, MIT Professor, stating, “It is no longer a physicist’s dream – it is an engineer’s nightmare.” Adding onto the difficulties of actually creating a quantum computer, they require an entire new way of human processing. Programming languages will change, and algorithms will become far more complicated than what has already been uncovered by researchers. This is where some scientists and physicists have found holes in the future of this quantum technology. Using the few algorithms currently devised, will quantum computers drastically change our everyday lives? The answer can’t be determined right now, similarly to the status of Schrödinger’s metaphorical cat. However, without uncertainty we wouldn’t have Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle! Hold the phone though, because we have even more quantum information to talk about!
Is quantum, this discrete quantity of energy, basically sorcery? Unfortunately, even when quantum ideas make no sense and magic seems like the only logical theory, it is not correct. The truth is, anything regarding quantum energy has extremely tight principles and we just have yet to understand them. So, when logic has been thrown out the window, don’t worry, because there will always be a scientific or mathematic explanation. Why is this? Maybe it is because quantum behavior occurs on such an extremely small magnitude and we haven’t spent enough time with technology. Or maybe we have already looked right past the answer and need to find it again! The phenomena of particles and atoms is entirely opposite to humans’ natural ways of thinking; therefore, there is a high likelihood of missing one step along the way and stumbling into another one!
So, what are some practical uses of quantum mechanics in the real world? Well, out of a presumably infinite pool of real-world applications, we picked three.
Cryptography and Computer Security
As mentioned earlier, quantum mechanics promises a new era of security. The current forms of cryptography can easily be compromised; however, through unbreakable quantum key distribution (QKD), people will be unable to decipher a constantly changing key, or access code. This is because QKD is basically a scrambler of information, causing that information to continuously change. People will only be able to access the information if they have the exact quantum key, and even then, communicators would be notified of a security breach. In addition, this method of security is already being tested in Austria and Switzerland with some optimism for application in the future.
The next real-world application of quantum intelligence is through extremely precise clocks. Now I know what you’re thinking, because you probably thought the same thing we did. Why do we need ultra-precise clocks if I get to work 20 minutes late every day anyway? Timekeeping is way more than just watching seconds, minutes, and hours fly by! In fact, clocks sync to a vast amount of important applications in society such as GPS systems and the stock market. The time is takes to conduct and receive confirmation of trades on the stock market has dwindled down to milliseconds, making ultra-precise clocks crucial! After the stock market crash of 1929, investors learned it only takes a matter of seconds for the stock market to change drastically. In August 2013, a company on the stock market, Knight, experienced another disaster when a computer algorithm, gone rogue, was putting out trade orders costing the company 10 million dollars per minute. 45 minutes (and, presumably 450 million dollars?) later, they found the issue when the algorithm in question was finally uncovered. Perhaps quantum computing could have anticipated the effects of this misapplied algorithm and provided some predictive warning before the failure? Once we throw off the shackles of human apathy in our economic engine, having accurate clocks and predictive computation could cause the U.S. economy to behave far more reliably. As of 2014, the official world clock, the strontium atomic clock, is set to be accurate for another 5 billion years before the clock gains or loses an extra second. That’s quantum clocks, baby! So, next time you use your GPS or buy a stock, remember to thank quantum theory for being so precise!
In the fields of medicine, quantum mechanics might be just the ticket for improving microscopes to become even more powerful. Biological tissues and other opaque materials are much easier to look at using the new Entanglement-Enhanced Microscope. Entanglement refers to the odd quantum property in which two particles share the same existence. By using this microscope to decipher the interference patterns of the two particles, it is possible to work out their individual shapes. The success in this area of study promises other future uses of quantum mechanics, such as with interferometers used in gravitational wave astronomy!
As we’ve stated, the creation of quantum computers has become a reality, but after funneling billions of dollars into the first one, what comes next in regards to funding further research? Congress has already made a move of support toward this scientific research. Quantum computers’ capabilities reach far beyond that of any supercomputer; therefore, the United States is determined not to fall behind, as Congress is already drafting bills to build research centers and initiate programs intended to develop goals and priorities of quantum research. Is quantum reach going to be the next space race between countries? The United States government is asking the same question; however, Congress is already facilitating partnerships between U.S. industry and academia, to seek out ways to conduct research and develop new solutions for real world applications using quantum research. If quantum computing is the next intelligence race between countries, the United States is ready to dive in and address the current or future roadblocks standing in the way. As of now, seven Quantum Research centers are being called for on the drafted bill.
Our goal is that the word quantum no longer scares you, at least not right away! This future technology promises many great solutions for humankind and we want YOU to be just as excited as we are! Used as a tool for problem solving and pushing the worldwide technology industry in positive directions, quantum computing can create new medical, economic, and social solutions we never thought possible. Plus, we might one day know the truth about Schrödinger’s cat!