Moore’s Law Is Dead – Long Live Quantum Computing
Quantum computing is around the corner — and from virus-saving drugs to improved energy storage systems, the benefits for the planet will be staggering.
This is the season of hope. A time to reflect on the past and to dream about the future. Within the next year or two, we will be blessed with the first working quantum computer and the spinoffs will be staggering. These will include personalized medications, virus-fighting drugs, better building materials, improved energy storage systems — the list goes on. As the marketplace begins to talk about quantum computing, let’s take a look at what it is and what it will mean.
A little history: in 1965, Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, predicted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits would double every 12 to 18 months. Known as Moore’s Law, this held true for the past 50-plus years, but unfortunately, Moore’s Law is no longer valid, as it is impractical to shrink transistors much more. This means that the computational speed of our current integrated circuit technology has reached its practical physical limitation. Keep this in mind.
A classical computer is based on integrated circuits. The state of each circuit is referred to as a “bit” and is used to perform computations. A bit can be either a 1 (on) or a 0 (off). All calculations are therefore linear. The computational power of a classical computer is two times the number of bits.
A quantum computer is based on quantum mechanics and uses quantum bits known as qubits. A qubit can also be measured as either a 1 or a 0, or it can exist as both — a principle called superposition. Although this does not make sense in our large world, it is a fact accepted in the small world of quantum mechanics. Superposition takes into account the probability that an object can be in position 1 and 0 at the same time. The result: qubits computational power scales exponentially.
Should you wish to double the computational power of a classical computer, you’d have to double the size of the hardware. In quantum computing, to double computational power, all you need to do is add one more qubit. A two-qubit computer performs four calculations at once. A three-qubit machine can do eight calculations and a four-qubit machine provides 16 calculations simultaneously. Today’s lab-based quantum computers are working with eight to 10 qubits. A quantum computer comprised of 300-plus qubits will have the potential to perform 2300calculations in a single step. (For those of us out of sync with exponential numbers, 2300 represents a number greater than all the atoms there are in the known universe.)
TechTarget, a website for enterprise technology buyers, pegs the performance gains of quantum computing in the billion-fold realm and beyond. The site says it is a larger leap in processing power than “from the abacus to a modern day computer.”
Quantum computing will allow us to model complex molecular interactions at an atomic level. Think about that. This means we’ll be able to address the earth’s biggest problems and as a result, live better lives. This is not an overstatement.
We will be able to address and program calculations that will produce electrical cables with zero loss of energy. We will be able to increase the efficient use of almost any raw material and reduce waste. We will be able to change our climate by finding calculations to strip carbon from our atmosphere. We will be able to predict and manufacture better materials for electronics and energy storage. Machine learning, optimization problems for robotics, handling big data, sequencing individual genomes for personalized medical treatments and improved airplanes and subatmospheric travel — all are only a calculation away.
We are not talking about an incremental improvement in computational power. This is a revolution. Nature uses quantum mechanics to compute — to process information. Within five to 10 years, we will start to compute alongside nature. We will be able to control the very building blocks of our world.
(For more on quantum research in Canada, see “Quantum Valley,” June/July 2015.)
This post was originally published in CPA Magazine