Quantum Computing; a term that most have not ever heard, and if you have it’s most likely been dismissed as too esoteric to warrant more than a moment’s discussion. But as we march into the future, quantum computing may prove to transform the world as we know it.
But what does this boujee sounding term even really mean? Obviously, there is no way to understand quantum fully in the scope of one newspaper article, not even a PhD is enough to fully understand the field (or at least what we have figured out so far), but the core concepts are accessible to anyone. First, it’s pertinent to describe classical computers. Classical computers are basically anything we would consider technology today. All the circuits in your phones, computers, fridges, planes, all that is run by classical computers. And, as anyone who has seen a good 80’s hacking montage can tell you, those computers run on tons and tons of 1’s and 0’s. These 0’s and 1’s answer our complicated questions with billions of combinations of yes’s and no’s; nothing else.
Single Purpose Quantum Chip
So then, what is the quantum part of quantum computing? Because of some physics that might be a little too tedious to explain (google the Stern-Gerlach experiment if you’re curious) electrons are probabilistic. What does that actually mean though? Another term you’ve probably heard is electron spin, an easy way to think about this term is which direction the electron is pointing towards. At any given point of measurement, the electron decides where it’s going to point, up or down. It’s also pretty magical to pause on this point of measurement for a minute. Electrons are so small that nothing interacts with them in any meaningful way; this means that any observation or interaction, either by humans or light, is a measurement. Us perceiving these quantum objects causes them to change their nature, pretty cool huh? So when an electron is measured it stops having an unknown state and settles into the state that it was measured as. This is a completely random decision that our electron makes, and it is this property that is manipulated in quantum computing.
In classical computing, a bit is a 0 or a 1, but in quantum computing a qubit (a quantum bit) doesn’t follow those same rules. Like our electron, upon measurement, it randomly chooses which state to collapse into. So, through mathematical manipulations implemented through code we change this probability to suit our needs and accomplish certain goals, just like the goals we accomplish with classical computing. So while a classical bit can either be a 0 or a 1, a qubit could have a 40% chance of turning up as a 0 and a 60% chance of turning up as a 1 and we won’t find out until we measure the qubit. This probability is called a superposition, so until the qubit is measured, and collapses into either a 0 or a 1 the qubit is in a superposition of the two.
So what is actually interesting about this? Why should you be excited about indecisive 0’s and 1’s? So, so many reasons. Let’s take for example cryptography, the science of storing and transmitting data in a particular form so that only those for whom it is intended can read and process it. We all know about hackers, the shadowy figures trying to steal our credit cards. Hackers often obtain information by intercepting it as you send or receive information from another party, like you sending your password to your bank to log in. But how can quantum computing help stop these dastardly crooks? I mentioned before how qubits are in a superposition until a measurement collapses that superposition. So, if our hypothetical hacker snatched your password, that would collapse the superposition making both parties instantly aware that their data had been tampered with. So, a quantum internet might mean goodbye to hackers.
A single qubit
Another of the countless exciting opportunities presented by quantum computing is the opportunities for modeling that we have never had hopes of before. In 2017 the AAAS published an article excitedly talking about the simulation of the largest molecule ever simulated. This molecule was very small, beryllium hydride for those who remember enough of chemistry class to have that mean something. And yet, this feat was monumental. For all the many wondrous materials and compounds that humanity has dreamt up in the past decades (like the special alloys for spacecraft, the new wonders of modern medicine, etc) we’ve had to come up with those materials based on known properties, math, and lots and lots of testing. So what does quantum offer? Well, at the core level of all these breakthroughs is the creation of new compounds that can do new things. And these compounds exist at their most base form, at the quantum level. So using quantum technology we can simulate these compounds as they truly are, not based on what we know about them. This opens up new exciting possibilities about future medications and materials that have the potential to change the world as we know it.
But, quantum is not all rainbows and sunshine, there’s still a lot of issues. ENIAC, the first computer ever built, only came around in 1943, and that’s honestly about where we are with quantum technology at this moment. We have a lot of ideas and possible applications, and while the field is not quite in its infancy, it’s probably somewhere in the range of a toddler. We still only know how to make quantum computers with up to 65 qubits, and that’s an amazing feat, as compared to classical computers that can billions or trillions of times as many classical bits. It may be a while before the aforementioned applications truly begin to take concrete form in the world around us. Skeptics say that this is one of those technologies that we will always be talking about but never realize, optimists say stop complaining and get to work.
If you couldn’t tell before, I am among the optimists. Just like the first computer ever built, we don’t really know what this technology can bring. The possibilities are as vast and as endless as those that were unleashed with the birth of classical computation. And the most exciting part? We are the first generation to be able to truly participate in the development of this technology, it isn’t just relegated to a bunch of old people sitting in dusty labs. Quantum computing calls for people from a myriad of backgrounds, humanities-based educators to organize education communication, engineers to build new and better quantum hardware, computer scientists that work to create algorithms to better explore and utilize these new tools, physics students that work to unlock the hidden mysteries that abound in the field, mathematicians to come up with new math to explain the curious phenomena that characterize the field. There’s so much to do, so much to learn, it truly is an opportunity for collaboration and intersectionality between fields and people. We have a unique opportunity to define what this field can be, to escape the pitfalls that we have seen in big tech, and further science in a way that is ethical and equitable.
And you, even as a high school student, can get involved too! MIT has all its lectures open to the public online, the IBM Quantum experience allows for any curious individual to play with real quantum computers themselves and to learn from their extensive documentation, and there are countless papers and textbooks available to those curious enough to care. There are even classes available to high school students, such as the one offered by IBM and The Coding School through zoom, taught by grad students from the most prestigious universities from across the globe. And all these materials: free as air!
If this article does nothing else, let it give you some wonder and appreciation for the possibilities of mankind, and the discovery of science. Next time you want to skip your math homework, think that maybe, just by being born at the right time, your name might make it into the textbooks of future generations. And if you’re really interested IBM has a whole slew of programs to educate people just like you going on right now, check out the Qiskit Advocates page to learn more about quantum and maybe to get involved in it yourself. The world sucks right now, but let the innovation and magic of this age propel you towards discovery and learning, not just for yourself but for the whole of humanity.
Qiskit Advocates Webpage: https://qiskit.org/advocates/
Qiskit Advocates Interest Form: https://airtable.com/shrt7lqrHDWO56W9x
Qubit by Qubit: https://www.qubitbyqubit.org/
IBM Quantum Experience: https://quantum-computing.ibm.com/
Potential of Quantum Computing: https://www.ces.tech/Articles/2020/The-Potential-of-Quantum-Computing.aspx#:~:text=Overview%20Quantum%20computing%20has%20the,currently%20unsolvable%20by%20classical%20computers.