Sep 14, 2015

Thoughts on Quantum Computing

There are few fields of burgeoning technology that people are simultaneously more excited and less knowledgeable about. That's fair: scientists seem to agree that quantum computers will eventually perform certain types of calculations many orders of magnitude faster than conventional computers while also admitting they have no idea if that will be in 10 years or 100.

Quantum computing is an interesting field. While quantum physics has existed for nearly a hundred years at this point, the idea of utilizing the principles in computing was really only put forward 30 years ago. The very first real-world applications of the theories didn't hit the scene until the past decade (and those at a scale far smaller than commercially applicable). Even the most ambitious projections put the first true quantum computer at least 5 to 10 years out. But there has been an interesting development recently.

D-Wave is the one company that claims to have a commercially-viable quantum computer. That statement may seem odd... they either do or they don't, right? Well, decide for yourself. In 2013 D-Wave released the second generation of its quantum annealer - a specialized processor that can only perform a very specific subset of tasks. Two copies of the processor have been purchased: one by Lockheed and one by Google/NASA. There has been a lot of critical reaction from numerous directions arguing that D-Wave's processor isn't a true general quantum computer, doesn't provide any speed-up over traditional computers, and may--in fact--not be a quantum computer at all. While the last argument, at least, has (essentially?) been disproven, there are still a lot of open questions. Despite the critics, D-Wave just announced last month the development of their third generation of quantum annealer, with twice as many qubits (just over 1,000).

D-Wave or not, quantum computers have yet to solve any meaningful problems in the real world. It's unclear when the technology will reach the point that it can begin opening up new opportunities. Despite that, there is some very real money changing hands. The two processors that D-Wave has sold? $10,000,000 a piece. The company has also entered into major contracts with Lockheed and others to help them understand the implications and possibilities of quantum computing. The Snowden papers revealed that the NSA was in the middle of an $80M research project to attempt to develop a quantum computer to break encryption codes.

So what, exactly, is it that people are looking forward to quantum computing doing? That's still a big question, though there are some early high potential ideas. The one area that the power of quantum computing has already been demonstrated in is factorization. Yeah, the 15=5*3 thing. It turns out that factoring immensely large numbers underpins a great deal of the encryption used today, including most of the security on the internet. Quantum computers can theoretically crack right through the security of banks, governments, and tech companies. On the other hand, they can also theoretically enable a whole new class of encryption with an even greater level of security.

Beyond the terrifying security applications, quantum computers have been shown to theoretically substantially speed unsorted database searches. Current searches take (on average) n/2 guesses. An algorithm has been developed for quantum computers to do it in the square root of n. The implications are huge for any company with large databases. Similarly, quantum computers may be able to solve optimization problems that were previously intractable with traditional algorithms. The potential cost savings for companies in the shipping/delivery and transportation industries are in the billions (imagine being able to optimize UPS deliveries over 5 days instead of 5 hours).

Of those with at least a passing knowledge of quantum computing, there is little doubt that the technology will fundamentally change a lot of industries. Once it reaches its first major inflection point, money will flock to quantum computers in the billions. The first big question is exactly what and where the impact will be: new applications are being dreamed up every day. The second (and much larger) big question is when: are we going to be overhauling the world's IT security in the next decade or is that task left to our great, great, great grandchildren?