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Quantum Computing Explained

We’ve heard the term often, but we may not completely understand what it means, especially because it’s a complex issue.  What really is Quantum Computing?

Here’s a breakdown

What is quantum computing?

First, a quick understanding of how computers operate.

Computers are made up of simple devices that work in combination with each other to produce methods that can process and portray data in a meaningful manner. These all-knowing, all-powerful systems are made up of tiny devices that make use of bits (the basic unit of data, FYI) that hold just one of two values – 0 or 1. From doing basic math to playing FIFA 21, computers understand only these two digits.

Things get a bit more complicated as the parts of computers become tinier. With more devices huddled together in smaller spaces than before, processing power can be increased manifold, and we have succeeded in doing exactly that right until now. These developments have so far been in line with Moore’s law, which is more of an observation rather than a law of physics. It states that the “number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years”.

However, we reach the physical limits that are set by nature when we develop transistors, the tiniest and the most basic of devices used in a computer, that are only as big as a few atoms. In order to bypass this physical constraint, we make use of quantum properties.

What do Quantum Computers do?

Quantum computing is the use of quantum properties and quantum bits to perform complex computations.

Quantum computers are generally used to solve computational problems that are too hard or too big for classic computers. But what sort of problems exist that are too complex for the computers that we use? For starters, the use of machine learning, the large-scale adoption of IoT devices, the need to reduce energy consumption related to computation and the mind-numbingly large amount of data that gets generated every day has led to the need for better computing solutions.

Quantum computers make use of data units known as qubits. These bits are quite like Schrödinger’s cat. They can exist in two different states simultaneously. Dead and Alive. True or False or both True and False at the same time!

Quantum computers generally make use of two properties of quantum states – superposition and entanglement.

Super..what?

Superposition and entanglement are the two key elements of quantum computing. Superposition is a property of quantum systems where something can exist in different states rather than being fixed in a particular state. However, it really isn’t an exact explanation, although most people prefer to simply say that superposition means two states at the same time! Let’s look at an example to ease things up a bit. Think of a coin. It has two sides – heads and tails. When the coin is placed on a surface, it is either at heads or at tails. However, if the coin is spinning on a surface, one cannot really pinpoint which side of the coin is the current state, as the sides keep switching. This is known as superposition. What this really means is that a qubit can be 0,1 or both at the same time!

Entanglement is a quantum property that defines the lack of independence between the quantum states of two or more objects. Although two entities may be spatially separated (even by a large distance) and they showcase random behaviour on their own, they can still behave in a correlated state. One object’s state needs to be described by referring to the state of another object. As in, an object cannot be mathematically described on its own as the properties of entangled particles are more correlated than anticipated. Once entangled, two objects are permanently connected.

Now that we have seen what quantum computing really is at a fundamental level, let’s understand what it could mean for us.

Why should I study Quantum Computing?

Can quantum computing restore peace and order in the world? Probably not. Can they solve a few mathematical problems? Maybe!

From simulating chemical bonding to solving complex mathematical equations, quantum computers can do interesting things. In fact, quantum computing may just be the answer to solving the most complex problems that have been bugging us for long. Quantum computing can work together with classic computing by performing computations that may be a bit too heavy for the latter. Quantum computing can also accelerate research in the fields of drug design and manufacturing, chemical engineering, and machine learning.

The speed at which things are executed may improve productivity by a large amount, thereby saving a lot of money for the stakeholders. By bringing together classical computation techniques and quantum computing through cloud-based systems, researchers can access the best of both worlds as required. One can learn how to create and modify software programs that can run on quantum systems by tapping into the resources available in Qiskit, an open-source framework.

Hype or Real?

When we talk about cryptography today, it is hard to exclude quantum computing. The RSA algorithm, which happens to be one of our best bets against cyberattacks, depends on the idea that it becomes difficult to factorize large integers. However, quantum computers can break RSA encryption quite easily. Some have even claimed that quantum computers themselves are the solution for better encryption.

One of the major components of a quantum computer is superconductors. As the name suggests, these materials help in superconductivity, a property where electrical resistance is zero. This means that electricity is conducted without any resistance. Resistance usually builds up heat. Think of it this way. If superconducting materials were used to build devices, we would have had electronics that never heat up! Why we mention superconductivity here is that there have been quite a few breakthroughs related to the discovery of superconducting materials that can potentially change the game for quantum computing.

Investments in companies that deal with quantum computers have made it clear that quantum computing has already begun its journey. If quantum computing was indeed just hype, all of these developments would have never taken place.

However, as with any good thing, quantum computing too, has its disadvantages. It is important to understand the kind of problems that can be solved efficiently by quantum computers. The capacity of quantum computers is limited by the software that is used to control them. One also cannot expect quantum computers to simplify any and every problem that a classic computer may solve. This is because of the unpredictability of quantum bits and therefore, a significant modification may be required for a particular algorithm to work more efficiently on quantum systems.

As of now, it isn’t very clear if quantum computers can replace our humble yet powerful classic computers in the next decade or so. Sure, the hype does get the ball rolling (for instance, helping start-ups get investments). However, one thing is for sure – quantum computing isn’t just a fad.

The Future is ... Quantum?

Quantum computers will definitely play a vital role in future. The technological developments surrounding quantum computing are evidence for the same. From developing quantum computers that are much smaller in scale compared to the ones envisioned to discovering superconductors that have the potential to revolutionize quantum computing, the scientific community has been making big leaps. The day may not be far where we have quantum desktop computers sitting on our desks. We would be able to run thousands, if not millions, of programs in parallel.

Of course, we’d still be using them to play Far Cry.

Date added
16.07.2021

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