IBM announces the world's fastest quantum computer - what does it mean?

They have the potential to change the world.

 |  5-minute read |   11-11-2017
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So, IBM has announced two powerful new quantum computer processors. One of them is not yet ready, but promised to be the most powerful of its kind with a processing capability of 50 qubits. In comparison, the fastest general-purpose quantum computers today max out at 20 qubits. The new IBM prototype also gives it a lead in the quantum computing department as it is faster than Google's 49 qubit machine that is still in the works. 

But what exactly does that mean for you and me? How fast is a 50 qubit quantum computer? And more importantly, should we be excited? To answer all these questions and more let's first take a look at what quantum computers are and, before that, understand why we need them. 

The need for quantum computers

Over the last few years, despite computers becoming more efficient and faster than before, what has gone under the radar is the fact that progress in the field of silicon technology – which forms the basis of any computational advancement – has slowed down considerably.

From video games to medical science, many industries have benefitted from the stupendous growth that has been seen in processor making technology over the years. This growth best described by a theory– Moore's Law– named after one of Intel's founding members Gordon Moore observed in 1965 that "transistors were shrinking so fast that every year twice as many could fit onto a silicon chip". In simple terms what Moore basically said was that processors which form the brains of any computer were becoming twice as fast every 12 months. This observation soon became a law, one that remained true the next 5-6 decades. Until it did not.

Earlier in the decade, chipmakers including Intel, started to realise that growth in processor making technology described by Moore's Law will not be sustainable in the coming days. But for a world increasingly looking forward towards artificial intelligence and machine learning to drive it home towards a new future where not only driverless cars but more importantly medical science and biotechnology were in the need for great processing power fit into a small space, this bottleneck in technology had to be circumvented. Enter Quantum computing. 

What is a quantum computer

Without going into the difficult-to-explain details, quantum computers are the next big wave in computer and silicon technology that promises to revolutionise the world as we know it. Unlike conventional computing methods that rely upon bits and use the brute force method of running through all possible solutions to find an answer to a problem, quantum computers use qubits that operate in a way which helps them look at maze from a view that helps them directly reach the solution without having to go through all possible negative answers. 

To break it down some more, as explained by The Wall Street Journal in an article, quantum computers are so efficient in their job that "the computing power of a data center stretching several city blocks could theoretically be achieved by a quantum chip the size of the period at the end of this sentence".

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So should we be excited?

So quantum computers are great news. Even Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella recently said so at India Today Conclave Next 2017, when he spoke about how quantum computers could change the world as we know it. But are they? 

At the conclave, Nadella spoke of the challenges that remain for technology, many of which he explained will be tackled by quantum computing.

"We still cannot model enzymes in food production that will be crucial to solving the world's food needs... For the last 10 years, Microsoft has been working towards quantum computing that will help find solutions to such problems currently not possible to solve using brute force methods of modern day technology... Quantum computing is the future of technology that will change the way the world works."

Well, the answer to this, like quantum computing, is zero and one, true and false, all at the same time. 

As Nadella, and several others have pointed out, quantum computers could theoretically be the answer to some of the major problems that could fundamentally change the world around us. But that is it. For now, much of what is being said about the benefits of quantum computing remains in the realm of theory. There is potential, but not tangible proof of its powers. 

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Also, it is important to understand that these processors are extremely difficult to make and even more difficult to operate, thus ensuring that they would not become mass use products anytime soon. 

Quantum computers need specific algorithms tailored for solving specific problems and excel in certain tasks, like factoring numbers and modelling molecules which require an insane amount of computational power, but they are useless for daily computational needs, hence barring some major technological breakthrough, they will not anytime soon make their way into our daily lives. 

Plus, quantum computers, as opposed to classical ones, are extremely error-prone. 

For now, we are still awaiting the big breakthrough in science or medicine facilitated by the computational power of a quantum computer. We could stumble upon one in the next few years, or have to wait for 10 or even 20 for something major. Hopefully, this 50 qubit quantum computer by IBM will hasten the progress. For now, we can only hope. 

Also read: Shutting down schools is no way to fight Delhi's life-threatening pollution

Writer

Sushant Talwar Sushant Talwar @sushanttalwar

Tech journalist, DailyO

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