Humanity has been trying to develop quantum computers for decades and we are in fact getting closer and closer. However, what makes quantum computers so powerful and how do we know when the first proper quantum computer has been developed?
This post first explains the difference between traditional and quantum computing in two different ways and is later followed by a short discussion on how quantum computing can impact finance and blokchain.
- What is Quantum Computing?
- THE TECHNICAL: Traditional computers vs. quantum computers
- What are bits? (Traditional computing)
- How do qubits differ? (Quantum computing)
- THE NON-TECHNICAL: The trial and error approach vs. flying
- NOW… What about the quantum computer?
- THE TECHNICAL: Traditional computers vs. quantum computers
- So when do we have quantum computers?
“Quantum computers can bring humanity forward – A LOT. At the same time, quantum computing can put the entire security of the financial and banking industry at risk”
THE TECHNICAL: Traditional computers vs. quantum computers
The classical computers such as the MacBook Air I am writing this blog post on is based on “bits”.
What follows next is a slightly technical explanation of “bits”. You do not need to understand this to understand the power of quantum computers but read on if you like some technical knowledge or scroll down to a much easier explanation of the difference between the “bits” of traditional computing and “qubits” of quantum computing.
What are bits? (Traditional computing)
Bits are units of information that exist in two states, 0 or 1 and are thus binary.The binary numbers, 0 and 1, are represented in a row of numbers like you see below.1 bit is one binary number in the first position. Hence:
1-bit = 00000001 bin - with 1 value (1*1^2)
2 bits have two binary numbers. Hence:
2-bit = 00000011 bin- with 4 values (1*2^2)
And so forth:
3-bit = 00000111 bin - with 8 values (1*2^3) 4-bit = 00001111 bin - with 16 values (1*2^4) 5-bit = 00011111 bin - with 32 values (1*2^5) 6-bit = 00111111 bin - with 64 values (1*2^6) 7-bit = 01111111 bin - with 128 values (1*2^7) 8-bit = 11111111 bin - with 256 values (1*2^8)
To explain the power of bits, let’s turn to music for a second.
- 8-bit music has 2^8 = 256 different sounds ==> This has been called Chiptune music and was the music quality of the 1980s.
- 16-bit music has 2^16 = 65,536 different sounds ==> The music of today
- 32-bit music has 2^32 = 4,294,967,296 different sounds
- 64 bit music has 2^64 = 1.844674407370955 x 10^19 different sounds (this number is humongous)
Applications on your laptops such as Microsoft Word, Skype or Spotify are also running in bits. They are usually so-called 32-bit or 64-bit applications, where the 64-bit applications are capable of more.
Most of us would never think of this, but the distinction between 32-bit and 64-bit is currently quite a big thing as Apple computers will stop supporting 32-bit applications from June 2018 meaning that a lot of software providers are currently upgrading their applications to 64-bit.
Well.. We have gained some knowledge about “bits”. So far so good.
How do “qubits” differ? (Quantum computing)
A qubit is also a unit of information – that is a unit of quantum information.
The way in which “qubits” differ from the bits explained above is that qubits are not binary.
A qubit can exist in any superposition from 0 to 1 as illustrated below.
Hence, while bits can exist in the state of either 0 or 1, qubits can exist in 0, 1 or anywhere in-between providing many more options.
For that reason, qubits make it possible to store much more information while using less energy at the same time.
To relate this proposition of qubits to something that is easier to grasp, it can be said that quantum mechanics deals with things on the scale of atoms and subatomic particles.
Or in plain English, TINY TINY TINY.
Essentially what we need to understand is that quantum computing is many times more powerful than traditional computing, which is the point I will try to make with an analogy in the non-technical explanation that follows.
THE NON-TECHNICAL: The trial and error approach vs. flying
In this non-technical section, I do not intend to explain the difference between bits and qubits. Instead, my focus is solely on providing an imaginary analogy explaining the power of quantum computing.
What you see below is YOUR starting point. Earlier today you decided to go for a run in the forest nearby. Because you are in great shape, you ran through the entire forest. Unfortunately, you do not remember how to get back again and are now looking back into the woods wondering which way you should go.
You know that the house is looking incredibly messy and that your girlfriend is coming home soon WITH your parents in law.
You will be in deep trouble if you do not get the house cleaned up before they arrive.
Hence, to find your way back through the forest, you take a structured approach.
First, you run down path A, next path Aaa, path Aaa and lastly path Aaaa. In other words, you run to the left every time.
You now know that path Aaaa was not the way home. Hence, you run back to Aaa and now run down Aaab.
You realize Aaab is not the right path either. Hence, you run back to Aa and start running down Aab.
From Aab you again run left to Aaba. You realize it is not the right path. Hence, you run back to Aab and run down Aabb, which turns out to also be the wrong path.
Well… At least now you now that path Aa does not lead you home. Thus, you start exploring what path Ab has to offer.
You take this structured approach until you finally reach home through Bbaa after 4 hours – good job mate.
In hindsight, the right path home is obvious. However, finding the right path was hard.
This structured approach trying out all paths is what traditional computers do to solve complex issues – such as mining bitcoins (buzzword #1).
NOW… What about the quantum computer?
The quantum computer is superior to the traditional computer.
It is much more powerful and much more intelligent. Hence, the quantum computer already knows all possible routes and the result of running down each route.
If you were the quantum computer, you would not run down all paths. Instead, you would order a passenger drone and fly above the forest while you look down on the many wrong paths that would have made your legs suffer. This takes you 3 minutes and 14 seconds.
So when do have quantum computers?
I know the analogy is not perfect. However, hopefully it explains the power and sophistication of quantum computers compared to traditional computers in a simpler way than the technical explanation of bits and qubits.
When do we have quantum computers?
Some of the big dogs including Google, Microsoft and IBM have already developed quantum computers – at least to some degree.
The current quantum computers are capable of 16 to 50 qubits.
IBM is a record-holder with its 50-quibit computer that ran in quantum microstate for 90 seconds. Yes – only 90 seconds. Or an astonishing 90 seconds depending on how you look at it.
The current developments are however most often not considered to be proper (or real) quantum computers.
Hmmm…. So they are quantum computers but not quantum computers?
Yeah sort of. A little confusing.
So how do we know when the first proper quantum computer has been developed?
First of all, you are unlikely not to read about powerful quantum computers in the news IF a proper quantum computer is ever developed – to the “IF” I must say I think it will. Other than that, the first proper quantum computer will be able to mine the remaining approximately 4 million bitcoins in incredibly short time.
Obviously, public key cryptology may advance before such a quantum computer is developed but who knows?
Anyway, the current 50-quibit computers are quite far from the 4-10,000 qubits needed to break current blockchains such as bitcoin.
However, with the concept of accelerating growth of technology in mind, proper quantum computers might not be that far away.
As stated by Fortune, “companies like Microsoft, Google and IBM are making rapid breakthroughs that could make quantum computing viable in less than 10 years” (Fortune, Roberts 2018).
If 10 years sounds like a long time to you, Google optimistically told Nature (2017 ) that they expect to have commercially viable quantum computers ready in less than 5 years.
Even though you do not care about blockchain, quantum computing is HUGE.
Quantum computers can bring humanity forward – A LOT. At the same time, quantum computing can put the entire security of the financial and banking industry at risk.
Fortunately, researchers are already trying to develop technologies resistant to quantum hacking but technology waits for no one so let’s see what happens.