At CES 2018, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced the company’s new quantum processor, codenamed Tangle Lake. The big news is that Tangle Lake is a 49-qubit system, which is up from their last test chip using 17 qubits. Everybody appears to be pretty excited about those numbers, but what do they really mean? And, more importantly, what does all this quantum computer technology mean for business going forward?
Traditional computers operate using binary logic based on the two possible states of either zero or one, but quantum computers, on the hand, operate using a much larger number of states held by a system of coordinated bits of quantum information called quantum bits, or qubits. More qubits are better because quantum computers perform their processing by taking many different inputs in parallel and producing a superposition of outputs in parallel. It is this parallel computation performed by coordinated (or “entangled”) qubits that promises the eventual supremacy of quantum computers over the most powerful computers today.
Intel is not alone in quantum computing, of course. IBM is also vying for position to develop the first commercially-available universal quantum computer for business and science with its IBM Q initiative, while Canadian company D-Wave claims to be the first company dedicated to developing quantum computing solutions. Meanwhile, Google and Microsoft are heavily invested in quantum research.
Entangled qubits are notoriously fragile. The superconducting materials involved require low operating temperatures at just slightly above absolute zero, so much of the hardware used for these room-sized machines is dedicated to cooling the chips and shielding the qubits from stray interference coming from the lab environment. Even under ideal conditions, keeping qubits in their “coherent” state lasts for just a fraction of a second, so experimenters have only that short time to complete their processing before the system begins to fall apart and exhibit errors.
Still, in the race to increase qubit stability, development is progressing at break-neck speed. Intel estimates that quantum computing will scale up to handling real-world engineering tasks and reach commercial viability in five to seven years, which is right around the corner.
Quantum computers are an answer to the increasing demand for greater computing power to analyze and act upon massive amounts of data. In particular, they’re good at solving specialized problems involving combinatorial optimization, such as pattern recognition, financial analysis, molecular research and cryptanalysis. Here are some major verticals where you can expect to see the first applications of quantum computing. Operating factors enabling advances in each of these areas will come from quantum computing advances in machine learning, pattern matching and big data processing.
Medical Research and Pharmaceuticals. Genome research has made great advances in the last couple decades, but analysis has been limited by current computing power. Quantum techniques will break these barriers using greatly optimized methods. Drug development will also advance through the analysis of molecular interactions at the atomic level.
The Financial Industry. The fund manager’s job to maximize returns and minimize risk by analyzing thousands of available securities will become more like a science of optimization than an art of financial wizardry. Simulating an extraordinarily large number of scenarios will also help analysts predict and plan for future outcomes.
Weather Forecasting. The sophisticated tools used for weather forecasting still involve a whole lot of guessing because today’s computers just can’t crunch all the data within a reasonable time frame. With the ability to analyze much more data all at once, quantum computers will finish work in minutes or hours that now takes weeks, months or years to complete. More accurate weather forecasting will significantly improve efficiencies, increase safety and lower costs for a number of industries such as transportation.
Transportation. Air and road traffic analysis will transform transportation networks and operations. The ability to examine and act upon real time traffic will allow for greater density while reducing or eliminating bottlenecks. Air traffic control in particular may become safer and more automated. Self-driving cars will also benefit from whole-network visibility and routing, decreasing travel times and reducing the risk of fatal accidents and personal injury. “More than 2 million people are injured or disabled in car crashes each year in the U.S. alone,” says Marc Anidjar, attorney and co-founder of Anidjar & Levine.
Software development. The new programming paradigm for quantum computing is a complete break from classical computing. The changes will require new training and R&D methodologies. In addition, these changes will give rise to new and unforeseen problems to solve.
Security. Data encryption is based around hard math problems, such as finding primes for large numbers, which take current computers a very long time to solve, but these sorts of problems will be a cinch for quantum computers to crunch. Quantum computers will disrupt just about everything, but especially encryption schemes, rendering existing cryptological methods obsolete and requiring new ones. Quantum cryptography promises unmatched security using theoretically unbreakable methods, but the reality of that claim remains to be seen. Regardless, the transition from classical cryptography to quantum cryptography will be an interesting and bumpy ride, as the first generation of viable quantum computers will possess the keys to all the digital locks in the world.
Cryptocurrencies. As the name denotes, cryptocurrencies use the same hard math problems used in cryptography as a means to represent the computational work needed to solve these problems as money. As quantum technologies rock the security world, they’ll drive similar changes in cryptocurrencies.
Communications. Quantum networks promise to offer instant, secure communication over long distances. Because these techniques are based on extremely abstruse theoretical ideas like quantum transportation, the development of quantum networks will trail behind general quantum computing by some measure, but it’s coming.
Fasten your seatbelts, folks. The bottom line is, nobody really knows all the ways we’ll use these new machines, or where these advancements will lead. For now, keep your eyes on the horizon looking for major shifts, and be prepared to adjust your financial and business plans accordingly.