The quantum leap: Quantum computing breakthroughs to watch

The classical computer has been the bedrock of computing for over 50 years. That’s going to change soon. quantum computing, which was once a concept limited to fringe scientific papers, is now becoming a mainstream topic.

We’re seeing significant breakthroughs in the headlines which are stoking the flames of conjecture. The truth is, that this technology will bring with it much more than hype and opportunities to breathe life into sci-fi creations. In this article, we’re going to dive into some of the milestones of quantum computing, future goals and, of course, the challenges that we still have to overcome.

The Quantum Paradigm

Classical computers began as room-sized machines. Computer scientists from the 1950s would be completely flummoxed to see the powerful gaming or AI training rigs of today. That said, computers process information using bits -- either a 0 or a 1. quantum computers break the mold by using quantum bits, or qubits. They’re built upon the principles of quantum mechanics, which allow us to conceptualize that a qubit can exist in a state of 0, 1, or both at the same time (this is known as superposition in quantum theory).

As a result of this state, quantum computers are able to measure vast quantities of possibilities at the same time and exponentially increase their computing power compared to classical machines.

Significant Milestones in Quantum Computing

As with everything groundbreaking, quantum computing has been the subject of much fanfare, which has caused tangible advancements to slip through the cracks. This includes:

The Rise of Quantum Supremacy

The idea of "quantum supremacy" once seemed rather farfetched. That was until Google demonstrated with its Sycamore processor exactly what quantum machines could do. Sycamore was given a calculation that would have taken a classical computer 10,000 years to complete. It completed it in 200 seconds. quantum supremacy is now a modern reality and not just a hypothesis.

Innovations in Quantum Error-Correction

The inherently fragile nature of qubits means they're prone to errors from even the smallest environmental interference. Over the years, researchers have been laser-focused on tackling this problem, giving rise to various quantum error-correction protocols. Among the most prominent are the "surface code" and "cat code" methods, which deploy specialized qubit arrangements and extra layers of computational checks to detect and correct errors in real time.

Development of Quantum Algorithms

Unsurprisingly, with the growth of quantum processors has come an increase in quantum algorithms being developed. Algorithms like Shor's (for integer factorization) and Grover's (for database searching) have proven quantum computing's superiority over classical methods.

quantum algorithms have more granular applications as well, especially for devs and larger organizations. They could drastically reduce the time it takes to render documents in a React PDF viewer, particularly those that are large or contain complex elements like high-resolution images or intricate designs. Imagine one day sending petabytes of multimedia files without delay.

In a fraction of a second, teams could edit, compare, and merge files, all on their native platform, without having to wait until all the documentation is ready for analysis or sending.

This is just a microcosm of how massive quality-of-life (QoL) improvements from quantum computing will actually be. Aside from document readers, artists will also be able to render entire films in a matter of seconds, as there will be no resolution too high to be processed instantly. The same goes for 4K video calls without lags, VR gaming, and so much more.

Quantum Potential

What makes quantum computers so powerful is their ability to solve the problems that have simply been out of reach for classical machines, This includes:

  • Cryptography: Certain mathematical problems (like factorizing large prime numbers) are difficult for modern classical computers. quantum computers, however, are able to solve these problems much faster due to their parallel processing capabilities. Modern digital security rests on the assumption that these problems prevent computers from solving them quickly, and so quantum computing will be incredibly disruptive to modern cryptography. "Revolutionary" won’t even begin to define it.
  • Drug Discovery and Material Science: Another difficult task for classical computers is simulating and understanding complex molecular structures. With quantum computing, molecular simulations will be turbo-charged and lead to important breakthroughs in medicine and material science at a blistering pace.
  • Optimization Challenges: Be it traffic management, financial modeling, or supply chain optimization, problems involving multiple variables and constraints could benefit immensely from quantum computing's prowess, resulting in more efficient and optimal solutions.
  • Machine Learning and Big Data: Data is the new oil. And companies everywhere are drilling. quantum computers can process and analyze vast datasets swiftly and can send machine learning models to the stratosphere. This will lead to more accurate predictions and insights.

Navigating Quantum Challenges

The dream of a large-scale, fault-tolerant quantum computer is still just a dream for now, due to certain technical hurdles.

The first is maintaining the quantum state of qubits over extended durations. The term for this is ‘quantum coherence’, and it is not an easy task. External disturbances such as cosmic rays or nearby electronic devices can disrupt its state and prevent long computations.

Of course, one must also ponder about scalability. Scaling from a few qubits to thousands or even millions which are needed for more complex tasks will need further innovations in quantum error correction (and system architecture for that matter).

For now, computer scientists have gotten around this by using extremely low temperatures to maintain qubit stability, but this is not something companies or organizations without vast resources can accomplish.

Another aspect to consider is the software ecosystem. quantum computers will need their own kind of software, along with unique programming languages and tools. This will take years and possibly decades of collaboration between physicists, computer scientists, and industry stakeholders before a barebones system is achieved. QApplications in Diverse Domains

quantum computing is going to massively change many sectors. That said, some stand to benefit sooner than the rest:

  • Financial Modeling: The financial sector is an obvious winner when it comes to having more computing power -- the sector is already using AI to its advantage. quantum algorithms will allow traders and analysts to evaluate vast numbers of scenarios extremely quickly, giving those companies with quantum machines an extraordinary advantage.
  • Climate Modeling: Predicting the Earth’s climate involves accounting for a ton of variables and how they interact with each other. quantum computers will allow more accurate climate models and better insights into climate change which will hopefully help us develop better strategies for mitigating it.
  • Logistics and Supply Chain: Efficient solutions to the traveling salesman problem -- a challenge that involves finding the shortest possible route through multiple cities -- could revolutionize logistics, saving time and reducing costs for businesses worldwide.

The Interplay Between Quantum and Classical Systems

While you may think that quantum computers will eventually replace classical computers, the truth is the future more likely has them together in a symbiotic relationship. This is because quantum machines will be used for tasks they’re better at, namely more advanced computational needs, while classical computers will be kept for more routine tasks and for user interfaces. An example of this already exists in cloud-based quantum computing platforms -- where users can send a certain task to a quantum machine and receive the result through their own classical machine.

Looking Towards the Quantum Future

The next decade promises a slew of breakthroughs. Today’s quantum computers are being compared to the classical computers of the 1950s, which is probably accurate considering they’re still in their nascent stage of development and haven’t even begun realizing their full potential.

quantum computing promises an increase in computation power for sure, but it offers much more than that. It promises a massive shift across many industries -- from healthcare to finance, energy and transportation. We live in exciting times as we stand on the precipice of a new era in technology, one that previously only belonged to the pages of science fiction.

Image credit: plotplot/Shutterstock

Lee Li is a project manager and B2B copywriter with a decade of experience in the Chinese fintech startup space as a PM for TaoBao, MeitTuan, and DouYin (now TikTok).

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