October 8th, 2021 | Updated on May 9th, 2023
Quantum computing has been a “technology of the future” in science fiction for at least thirty years, but much of the science fiction of the past has become the science fiction of the present.
The idea of quantum computing that we see in science fiction is based on the reality of quantum computing that exists in laboratories worldwide – and the day upon which it becomes accessible for the average consumer is growing ever closer.
Just as nobody knew what the internet could do for them until it happened, nobody’s totally sure about what quantum computing might do for them.
One thing we do know for sure is that it will take us beyond the binary era of 1 and 0 and into a world where almost infinite numbers of calculations can be carried out every second.
In terms of speed, it will feel like the difference between walking and driving, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Based on IBM’s calculations, a standard home computer tasked with locating a single item in a list of one trillion options would take one week to achieve the task.
A supercomputer of the kind that they’re testing right now in their laboratories would be capable of achieving the same task in a single second.
Supercomputers can go faster than any home computer, but their capabilities still pale compared to those of a working quantum computer.
If you’re not a scientist, you might find yourself asking why anyone would ever want or need such quick calculations when the average computer is so fast already.
The answer is that the requirements of everyday technology are already pushing us there. Consider a typical online slots website.
The average game you might find on there might look simple, but there are hundreds of thousands of calculations that govern every single spin of every online slots game, and they have to be done almost immediately.
That takes computing power, and the slots are becoming more complex with more rows, more reels, and more positions to calculate – and that’s just online slots.
Think about a logistics company trying to determine the most fuel-efficient route for delivering goods across thousands of roads and hundreds of cities, or an investment company managing millions of different funds.
These industries are increasingly likely to need instant data and real-time, and existing computer hardware will never be capable of providing them with it.
Quantum computers already exist – which is good news – but they’re had to move and operate. Most quantum computers are enormous and have to be kept at very low temperatures if they’re to perform at their best.
Until five years ago, it used to be the case that they had to be kept below absolute zero, but we’ve made progress since then. We’re also making progress in the size front.
At the end of September 2021, Orca Computing in the United Kingdom demonstrated the smallest fully functional quantum computer in the world.
The machine uses single photos, which is itself another quantum breakthrough. The news is made all the more impressive by the fact that Orca Computing is a company less than two years old, but its founder Professor Ian Walmsley is a former lecturer in photonics at Oxford University.
He already had the knowledge – he just needed a company of experts to help him to apply it. Professor Walmsley believes that the shrunken size of his company’s new quantum computer will make it commercially viable and intends to demonstrate its powers at industry events in late 2021 and early 2022.
As promising as the Orca quantum computer is, it’s not the solution to all of the problems faced by other quantum machines.
It functions at room temperature, but a combination of this and its reduced size means that it’s only as powerful as the average smartphone.
It will be useless as a quantum computer unless it can be made more powerful, and scaling it up might be an issue if the company is to avoid the usual heat and size issues that every other would-be manufacturer has made so far.
They won’t know if they’re capable of jumping over that hurdle until they try to boost their machine’s power next year. By that time, the Riken Centre for Emergent Matter Science in Japan might have made an even bigger breakthrough with its quantum experiments.
Until now, even the brightest minds in technology might have been guilty of old-school thinking when it comes to quantum computing.
The whole point of quantum is to do away with standard bits and replace them with qubits, but every design of the past has involved these qubits working in pairs – sticking to the traditional system of two.
The latest research from the Riken Centre has demonstrated that three qubits can be entangled without causing an issue.
Putting this in standard terms, this discovery means that quantum computers can have three “cores” rather than two, thus drastically enhancing performance without requiring more size or more heat.
The centre now feels optimistic that it will be able to demonstrate a large, scalable, commercial quantum computer before the end of the decade.
Many of the problems that quantum computers will solve haven’t even been thought of yet. Through models built on quantum computers, we might be able to solve the problems posed by global warming.
We might be able to design vaccines in a matter of days, if not hours when faced with a medical issue.
A quantum computer might cure cancer or some other illness or help us to build an engine that’s capable of faster-than-light travel.
This all might sound far-fetched, but so would the internet if you tried to explain it to an average member of the public in the 1980s.
If the breakthroughs made at the Riken Centre and Orca Computing could be combined, we’d be looking at smaller, more powerful quantum computers than the ones that exist today.
With that achieved, it’s a matter of time before they become accessible and available. Computing is about to take a very exciting leap into the future, and when it happens, it might change the world.