In April this year, during a press conference addressing the scientific community and several media, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Tradeau surprised the world by explaining briefly but very precisely, the basic principles of quantum computing. Even though Tradeau left us completely astonished, his knowledge on the subject should be no surprise, given that Canada is one of the main countries betting on this sector, which promises to revolutionize the computer industry, entirely.

Paraphrasing the Prime Minister, today’s computers work by allowing or blocking electricity through a transistor, using a binary code of bits (1: ON, 0: OFF). In contrast, quantum computers leverage different properties from quantum physics (branch of physics that attempts to explain the universe around us at a subatomic level), allowing them to encode complex information in each quantum bit (or qubit), and thus creating more processing power in (theoretically) smaller computers.

The reason for this computational advantage is that the transistors of a quantum chip can be in multiple states simultaneously, so that a qubit can be either one, zero or both at once, thus increasing the processing capacity exponentially. This quantum property of being in multiple states at once is called superposition. This, along with other properties, allows quantum computers to perform complex optimization calculations at least 100 million times faster than today’s most powerful computers. Nevertheless, these quantum chips need to work at temperatures below 0.02 Kelvin (temperature 1,000 times lower than that in outer space), to obtain the properties described above, so they still need large and complex cooling mechanisms.

Quantum computing could also mean the end of Moore’s Law, which dictates that the processing capacity of a microprocessor doubles every two years. And although in the last 40 years Moore’s Law has been fulfilled invariably, transistors within the chip may be reaching their physical limits. Today a chip the size of our nail has more than two billion nano transistors. A quantum computer could certainly solve this problem.

Apart from the efforts made by the governments of countries like Canada, Australia or the US, there are private firms in the sector, making important contributions. For example, there is Canadian D-Wave Systems, the first private company dedicated to manufacture and commercialize quantum computers. D-Wave has already sold a couple of quantum computers with an approximate value of $ 10 million each to important customers such as Google and Lockheed Martin.

Actually, Google is currently one of the most important players in quantum computing. In recent days, the company announced that, together with a group of scientists, it had been able to successfully simulate the surface of a hydrogen atom. For those of us who are not scientists, to make such a statement is an important breakthrough, because achieving this with a current computer would be practically impossible. Simulating chemical reactions of the different parts of an atom is a complex computational problem, since each electron can be in multiple states at a time due to the superposition property mentioned above.

The simulation of molecules with quantum computers could revolutionize chemistry and certainly represent a breakthrough for the pharmaceutical industry, enabling the latter to analyze reactions of various new drugs in the human body, among other things.

Quantum computing also promises to boost other industries such as cybersecurity (creating new encryption methods) or artificial intelligence. AI would benefit greatly by allowing computers to analyze and learn large amounts of data more rapidly and efficiently.

A technology like this will surely bring us huge computing capacity. The important questions now are: Do we know what questions are we going to ask these computers?, How would this technology help us better understand our place in the universe?, among others.

NOTE: This article was originally published by Periódico Expreso on August 15h, 2016

Ricardo Celaya
Operating Partner at Break Off Capital
MBA Oxford University

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