“Only six electronic digital computers would be required to satisfy the computing needs of the entire United States.” A prediction made by Howard Aiken in 1947 which on hindsight, we can all agree on has not turned out to be very prophetic. The need for processing power has continuously been on the rise and for the most part, the need has been catered through an unparalleled evolution of chip technology as forecasted by Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of components that can fit on a computer chip will double roughly every two years, which in turn will improve the processing capabilities of computer chips. The law which is more of an observation rather than a physical law has held true over the decades and has seen digital computers which originally took up entire rooms reduced to being carried around in our very own pockets. But with components reaching atomic scales, and more and more money being fueled in to make chips smaller and faster, it has now come to a point where we cannot count on chip technology to advance as predicted by Moore’s Law. Hence, alternatives are being pursued and developments are being made which has given rise to the idea of quantum computing.
The traditional computer at its very core performs simple arithmetic operations on numbers stored in its memory. The key is the speed at which this is done, which allows computers to string these operations together to perform more complex things. But as the complexity of the problem increases, so does the number of operations that is required to reach a solution; And in this present day and age, some specific problems that we need to solve, far surpasses the computing capabilities of the modern computer. This, however, has also been used to our advantage, as modern cryptography which is at the core of cyber-security, relies on the fact that brute forcing complex mathematical problems is a practical impossibility.
Quantum computers, in theory, do things differently. Information is represented in physical states that are so small that they obey the laws of Quantum Mechanics. This information is stored in quantum bits known as qubits rather than the traditional binary bits used in conventional computers. Quantum Mechanics allows a qubit to store a probability of its value as either a 0 or 1 with the exact value of the qubit unknown until it is measured. Without getting too technical, this allows a quantum computer to contain several states at the same time, giving it the potential to be millions of times faster at solving certain problems than classical computers. This staggering computational power, in theory, could be used to render modern cryptography obsolete.
Modern cryptography relies on complex mathematical problems that would take computers hundreds, thousands or even millions of years to solve. This practical limitation is what keeps our cryptography based security systems secure. But with quantum computers, it is theoretically possible that these solutions could be reached in days or even hours, posing a massive vulnerability threat to our current encryption. If cryptography collapses, so will all our security.
But a quantum world is not all doom and gloom. Active research is already being done on quantum safe algorithms that can replace current algorithms that are under threat from the capabilities of a quantum computer. Theoretically, these quantum safe algorithms could prove to be more secure than anything we currently know of. Another area where quantum computing is likely to shine is in Big Data. With cross industry adoption of new technologies, the world is transforming itself into a digital age. This is sure to pose new problems well beyond the capabilities of modern computers as the complexity and the size of data keeps increasing. The challenge lies in converting real-world problems into a quantum language, but if that is accomplished, in quantum computing we will have a whole new computational system to tackle these problems.
It is important to realize that quantum computing is still in its infancy and almost all of the hype surrounding it is theoretical. But it is clear that the technology promises a revolution in computing, unlike anything we have seen before. It is also important to understand that quantum computers are not a replacement to the classical computer; Rather, it is specialized at solving a particular set of problems that are beyond the powers of a modern computer. This opens up a vast avenue of possibilities for quantum computing. The traditional computer will still have its place but with the world moving more and more towards a data-driven future, expect quantum computers to play a vital role in the future of technology.