The stream of data we generate is not harnessed to its full potential. When you consider the billions of search algorithms processed by Google each second, the surge of clickable likes Facebook sees every minute and the amount of photos shared online, a lot of data is going to waste because we still lack the computational power to make sense of it all.
Can you imagine what we could achieve if we had a computer capable of optimising all the personal data that we generate?
In the wake of the smartphone revolution, almost every minute detail of our lives is recorded: we use apps to track our heartbeat, diet and fitness, e-commerce tracks our behavioural and shopping patterns, in-built GPS takes note of our precise whereabouts, while institutions keep track of the economy, news and weather.
Scientists have long theorised that one day, a computer which channels the mind-bending principles of quantum mechanics will be capable of solving the mightiest mathematical calculations in lightning speeds.
This would present results that today’s computers would take years to calculate.
Very broadly, quantum mechanics relies on the central principle that particles at subatomic scale exist in all possible states simultaneously. At this level, light can act both like a particle and a wave. Two subatomic particles are known to be linked even when miles apart: in his theory of special relativity, Albert Einstein described this as “spooky action at a distance”. In this entanglement, changing one would change the other in the exact same way.
This might sound like a difficult concept to unpack and perhaps one that is ultimately futuristic. However, it seems that a quantum computer operating on these mind-boggling principles to promise a revolution in data processing, already exists. In Vancouver, Canada, a start-up called D-Wave wowed the scientific community back in 2007 by announcing that it had built the world’s first quantum computer, a feat which was hitherto thought to be decades away from being achieved.
Four years later, the company went on to release its first commercial quantum computer and is expected to launch a more powerful chip towards the end of this year. The quantum computer lives in a black box the size of a garden shed approximately 10 feet high, with a white neon logo embellished on its belly in a futuristic font. Its constituents – a single remarkable chip made of tiny loops of silver-grey niobium wire – is kept inside a freezer that cools to a temperature around 150 times colder than interstellar space. These temperatures are essential to achieve quantum effects.
The circuits in D-Wave’s processors are superconducting: they have zero electrical resistance and generate no heat. The superconducting circuit gives these computers unprecedented speed and power. But apart from the bizarre temperatures, what makes a quantum computer essentially different and so revolutionary compared to the computers that we currently use? In its rawest form, data stored digitally on a computer can occur in two possibilities. These possibilities are called bits and can be either active or inactive. On the other hand, quantum computers use quantum bits (qubits) where the 1 and the 0 can occur simultaneously.
This means that they can perform multiple calculations simultaneously. So whereas today’s computers can represent a single number in a calculation, a quantum computer’s qubit can be on, off or in a mixed state in between, enabling them to be in multiple places at the same time and thus capable of performing single tasks at ridiculously faster speeds and more effectively. The D-Wave is capable of crunching numbers faster than any other comparable machine on earth. It is in fact 3,600 times faster than a traditional computer.
To compare, home computers run on a 32-bit processor while the D-Wave One is a 128-qubit machine. It comes as no surprise that two of the world’s intelligence giants, Google and the US Space Agency NASA, pounced on D-Wave’s project. At NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, California, Google and NASA are using their co-owned D-Wave computer for a branch of artificial intelligence with applications in areas as diverse as voice recognition and detecting credit card fraud. NASA is studying effective means for D-Wave to calculate the optimal route and method for Curiosity rover to land on Mars.
Meanwhile, Google is using D-Wave to further develop its Google Chauffeur software in self-driven cars, teaching it to better navigate the roads and react to obstacles in a more similar way to the human brain. The quantum computer could represent an enormous new source of computer power, potentially a computer working closer to how the human brain works, without the margin of human error. It would solve problems that will bury conventional computers into centuries by revolutionising artificial intelligence.
Even though the engineering difficulties for building a quantum computer are still a hurdle due to the environment within which it needs to operate, researchers continue to hope that quantum architecture will eventually be used to optimise solutions across complex and interconnected sets of data variables, currently still beyond the capabilities of conventional computing.
Even if today’s computer software is already sequentially very fast, quantum computers will consider so many more factors simultaneously that its capabilities will one day rival that of our brains. D-Wave’s next chip, consisting of 1,024-qubits, is currently undergoing careful assessment, ahead of its planned release this year.
Quantum computing: the effects
Health: Medical professionals would diagnose specific health conditions and diseases more accurately. A quantum computer would crunch data instantaneously, detecting problems in DNA in the blink of an eye with amazing accuracy. For instance, cancer would be detected earlier and its computational models would help determine how the disease develops.
Environment: The devastating Haiyan Typhoon in the Philippines last year would have been anticipated with precision, giving people more time to retreat to safety. This would surely help prevent weather related disasters in the age of quantum computing.
Marketing: Marketers already have a lot of intelligence at their disposal: however, a quantum computer would translate into even more hyper-personalised advertising because consumer data can be optimised faster.
Travel: Travellers would be able to map their routes down to the minutest detail since the quantum computer would be able to consider exponentially more options: like the weather within each kilometre, the size of the plane, the amount of space you would have in your seat or the extra options available on each flight.
Originally published in The Sunday Times of Malta on August 10, 2014.