Digital Intern, This is Milk
In the fifth of our 'On the Horizon' articles - a series of posts exploring future business and society trends - we explore Quantum Computing and the potential impact on business and society.
The foundation of computing.
Throughout the 'On the Horizon' series so far, we have looked at various technologies and innovations that can have a profound impact on business and society. There is one thread that runs through the four topics mentioned so far (self-driving cars, blockchain, industry 4.0, and AI) that serves as the foundation for those innovation, without which they would have been impossible, and that is computing. Computers have arguably shaped and reshaped our way of life in the last 20 years more than anything else has in that period of time. They are at the core of so many aspects of our lives that listing them will be pointless. Given the direction of development it stands to reason that the role computers play in our lives will continue to grow in the future. It's all possible because of computing.
Computing can essentially be broken down to mathematical problems. Every action that a person executes at a computer is interpreted and resolved as maths problems by the computer. Traditional computers understand and store information through transistors, which can be either on or off. In programs this is represented by 'bits', which can be either 1 or 0. Simply put, 'the language' of our current computers is comprised of series of bits that are either 1s and 0s. However, if those transistors are reduced to extremely small sizes they begin to exhibit quantum physics effects, such as 'superposition'. 'Superposition' means that those bits can be both 1 and 0 at the same time, and in such state are called qubits. How is it possible for a qubit to be a 1 and a 0 at the same time? No one really knows definitively. But the implications of this 'superposition' state for computational power are astounding. If one qubit can store both 1 and 0 at the same time, then two qubits can store four values, three qubits can have six values, and so on, resulting in computing power ramping up exponentially.
The idea of quantum computing and the value that it holds have been around for a while. But more recently some organisations have been successful in reaching the elusive quantum computing state and have begun to harness its power. For example, IBM announced that it now offers free public access to its cloud-based 5 qubit quantum computer IBM Q, and also has plans to offer ~50 qubits systems commercially. Another example is D-Wave's quantum computer that Google and NASA have been testing since 2013.
How might Quantum Computing impact business and society?
More than 1 trillion unique devices are connected to the Internet and used by consumers for various tasks, ranging from paying bills online to communicating with other people. As digital becomes even more ingrained in our lives, the importance of cyber security grows exponentially. The privacy and protection of our data is currently based on traditional cryptography, which is the practice and study of information protection. Quantum computing presents a serious challenge for cyber security. The overwhelming computational abilities of quantum computers could potentially quickly unravel most of the encryption methods used today, making the current cryptography practices and standards obsolete and exposing valuable and sensitive information. Clearly, both businesses and customers can become vulnerable in such a scenario. However, there is good news as well. Research into post-quantum cryptography is underway and quantum computing presents an opportunity to improve existing cyber security practices. For example, USA's National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and the European project PQCRYPTO are working on post-quantum algorithms aimed at solving the threat of quantum computing to tradition encryption.
The computational power of quantum computers could also be applied to medicine, chemistry, and pharmaceuticals. Quantum computing could help scientists to map the proteins the DNA codes for, providing more information about the human biology. Furthermore, D-Wave have also put their quantum computer to the task of analyzing entire genomes, which might make the case that quantum computing can help in the provision of better and more accurate therapies to patients. Quantum computing might also be used for improved drug discovery. It can facilitate innovation by helping researchers to simulate entire human bodies and generations to explore the effects of drugs in development, thus exponentially accelerating the drug discovery process. These complex drug interactions are currently not easily simulated or observed with the contemporary traditional computers. Based on what we currently know about quantum computing it seems that the medicine and pharmaceutical industries might stand to benefit tremendously from it, and by proxy so will the patients.
From solving logistics problem, such as route and cost optimisation, to financial portfolio analysis and maximising profits, quantum computing's promise of faster and better results for businesses is something to be paid attention to. Although still quite early in development to make any concrete predictions, quantum computers will undoubtedly be one of the technological innovations that have the potential to disrupt our lives in a profound way.
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(Blog first published 03/30/2017)