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What Is Quantum Computing And How Will We Use It?

Last updated on February 15, 2021

The convergence of emerging technologies allows us to address the discovery process in a fundamentally new way. Once labelled promising but distant, quantum computers are developing steadily and show potential to simulate complex molecules on the fly, accurately and rapidly predicting the outcome of chemical reactions and helping us discover entirely new classes of materials.
Photo taken at 2018 ASCE (Credit: Graham Carlow)

If we analyze the technological advancements humans have made over the last century, the strides are incredible. The concept behind computers and the internet used to be a pipe dream: something that will always be the technology of the future.

Even when the first computers were created, they were quite energy-intensive and took up spaces the size of houses. Not even 80 years later, super-computers that process trillions of tasks every second fit in your palm or wrap around your wrist. 

The reasoning for why computers can advance at such an impressive rate is based on a law created by Gordon E. Moore (co-founder of Intel), which states that the number of transistors that fit onto a piece of silicon doubles about every two years.

When he predicted this in 1965, the tech industry lived up to the hype for about 40 years. However, experts on the field are speculating that we have a few years before Moore’s Law reaches its limit, as the size of transistors is reaching the subatomic level, which begins to interfere with quantum mechanics.

On the contrary, there is a new type of computer emerging that functions quite differently from our current machines. Although still in its infancy, quantum computing could have an astronomic impact on some of society’s largest modern problems, such as climate and material simulations, long-distance encryption, and disease recognition. 

To understand quantum computers, one has to understand quantum information.

When you do anything with a classical computer (click on a page, type something, download a file), the computer stores all the data in the form of bits, which can either be a 0 or 1, where quantum computers differ is how they store their information, which is in quantum bits, or “qubits.” These are very special because they take advantage of something called “superposition,” which allows a qubit to be a 0 and 1 simultaneously.

Because of this state that qubits live in, they can carry out multiple actions at once, while their classical counterparts do everything in increments. As we figure out how to engineer more and more qubits into one machine (the largest one today has 65), the possibilities of problems it could solve are endless.

Confused? Good, that means it’s making sense. Remember, if you think you understand quantum physics, you most likely don’t understand quantum physics.

Now that you have a general grasp on how quantum computers work, the question remains, “What will we do with them?”

Although there are hundreds of different applications, along with the fact that there are probably many we haven’t even discovered yet, some of the most important uses of quantum computing could be a chemical simulation for drug creation and enhanced weather & climate predictions.

When analyzing the chemical reactions that happen in molecules, traditional computers are hindered due to the sheer volume of atoms in certain substances. However, it’s almost as if quantum computers were made for chemical simulation.

Because of how they store information, qubits can simulate the interactions between atoms & molecules at the same time, which could drastically enhance our ability to develop new therapies, medications, and overall materials. 

Also, quantum information could be able to provide exponentially sharper weather forecasts, both long and short term. Meteorologists are often plagued with the same problem as chemists when trying to run simulations; there are just too many variables with too many possibilities, which quickly overload traditional computers.

When you keep adding factors to a system that you are trying to calculate, the growth is exponential because every single factor interacts with each other. Because of how quantum information theory works, scientists could not only predict natural disasters quicker, saving thousands of lives but also possibly create extremely sophisticated models that simulate long-term climate, which will provide us with invaluable data on how to mitigate our rapidly warming planet.

While still in its most early stages of development, there is a reason billions of dollars are being funneled into the research of quantum computation and its many applications. Paired with our most recent breakthroughs in areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and materials science, the sky’s the limit for what it will do for the advancement of humanity. 

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