Anything with the word quantum in front of it can seem intimidating, usually with good reason, however this doesn’t make these concepts any less important. It’s vital to understand new developments well enough to discuss them, as in the future, these developments could determine the course of your life. With that preface out of the way, let’s take a look at quantum computing.
So first, a basic question that should be answered, what makes quantum computing relevant? The main reason people are interested in quantum computers is the increased speed they provide, which allows us to explore questions that we couldn’t on traditional computers (such as the meaning of life, the universe, and everything).
So, before getting into the fun (and perplexing) stuff, a rudimentary idea of computers is required to understand this guide, which is that computers run on 0’s and 1’s, known as binary. These 0’s and 1’s are how computers understand data, and they then translate that into readable forms for us, for example, in memory, ‘A’ might look like 01000001, but to us non-computers it’s ‘A.’
Ok, now for the confusing bit. Quantum computers can store data as 0, 1, and both 0 and 1 (no, this is not a typo).
A good example behind being able to store data as both 0 and 1 at the same time comes from the famous thought experiment, Schrodinger’s Cat. The experiment proves that until something can be observably proven, it can be in a state of both. So, in this experiment, you leave a cat in a box for x amount of time. You then come back to the box after x amount of time, now, before you open the lid, is the cat dead or alive? It’s a trick question, the cat is both, until somehow determined as alive or dead, the cat is both dead and alive.
What should be taken away from the above explanation of quantum superposition (apart from a headache) is that a quantum computer can exist in multiple states at once, much like Schrodinger’s Cat. Due to existing in multiple states at once, a quantum computer can run 2n calculations at once (n represents the numbers of bits – known as qubits – the computer possesses), as opposed to traditional computers, that can only run one calculation at once, in sequence.
Moving away from how a quantum computer works, what practical effects will they have? One of the already known uses of a quantum computers is in breaking and creating encryption. Since quantum computers will be able to process data much faster than a traditional computer, quantum computers will be able to break encryption that is considered unhackable by nature of it taking so long that it’s unfeasible. In the area of creating encryption, due to the nature of quantum mechanics, any message secured through quantum means – such as China’s quantum satellite – is unhackable, since if the message does get intercepted, it will be unreadable.
Another example, this one more hypothetical, is the advent of superintelligence as a result of quantum computing. For the purposes of this post I’ll be using Nick Bostrom’s definition of superintelligence, “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field.” If quantum computing does in fact lead to the creation of superintelligence, to paraphrase Sam Harris, humanity will have created a deity.
As you can see, quantum computers will have a direct impact on our lives in the future. Short of a civilization ending apocalypse, humanity will not stop moving forward, meaning most of us will have to contend with challenges that massive technological change results in. Understanding what form these challenges might take allows us all to take steps to prepare ourselves.