This week on The Digital Life, we discuss the strange and exciting world of quantum computing. Quantum computers operate on an atomic level, harnessing the power of quantum mechanics to perform processing tasks much more rapidly than computers designed using classical physics. They have the potential to perform calculations much, much faster than any of our silicon-based super computers today — up to 100 million times faster, in fact.
Research in quantum computing has up until recently, been largely theoretical, with the practical technology needed to achieve it beyond reach. But now both Google and D-Wave, a Canadian company, have made some significant progress. Will there be a coming revolution in computing power? Will quantum computers one day replace our silicon chip based computing devices?
Jon: Welcome to episode 172 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is Founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings, Jon.
Jon: This week on the podcast, we’re going to discuss the strange but exciting world of quantum computing. Quantum computers operate on an atomic level to harness the power of quantum mechanics to perform processing tasks that are much more rapid than those of computers designed using classical physics. They have the potential to perform calculations much, much faster than our silicone-based super computers of today. Up to 100 million times faster, in fact. Research in quantum computing has, up until recently, been largely theoretical with practical technology needed to achieve it beyond reach.
Now, both Google and D-Wave, a Canadian company, have made some significant progress in bringing quantum computing to life. D-Wave has a commercial quantum computer but it’s not a universal quantum computer. It’s suitable for solving certain kinds of computational problems around optimization. That’s the limit of its capabilities. Will there be a coming revolution in computing power? Will quantum computers one day replace our silicone-based computing devices? That’s some of the stuff that I think would be interesting to explore today, Dirk.
Dirk: Sure. I’m no expert on quantum computing. Perhaps you are and can help myself and the listeners better understand what we’re talking about.
Jon: I can talk about how it works just based on my limited understanding. Today’s computers work by manipulating bits that exist in one of two states. As you know, it’s 0 or 1. Whereas, quantum computers, on the other hand, they’re not limited to these two states. They encode information as qubits, which are quantum bits, which can exist in super positions. They can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. The quantum mechanics that make that happen are as confusing to me as I think they’re probably as confusing to most laypeople. Because quantum computing contain these multiple states simultaneously, it has this potential to be millions of times more powerful than today’s super computers.
Google is in the process of building this so-called universal quantum computer that it hopes will usher in a new era and making this technology not just lab and research-based but moving out of the labs and into the commercial sphere. What’s exciting is that Google’s universal quantum computer could be revealed or be finished as early as the end of next year, 2017. We’re really waiting with baited breath to see if Google can pull this off. D-Wave, which is this Canadian company that has a quantum computer. Although, as I said earlier, not of the universal kind, is already selling their computers to researchers and to companies like Lockheed Martin. Even if it doesn’t happen in 2017, this is definitely where the future of computing is looking.
What’s really startling is how this technology might intersect with the technologies that we talk about all the time on the show. If you can imagine artificial intelligence and machine learning accelerated by quantum computing. We’re talking about jumps of millions of times. Which means that the advances will happen all that much more quickly. Talk about the genomics research that we discuss all the time, that being accelerated millions of times. I think it’s really in this intersection of quantum computing and some of the other areas of research and technology where this becomes exceptionally powerful. Your thoughts on that, Dirk?
Dirk: Yeah, that’s right. It’s really a microcosm of the shift that has happened in physics over the last 120 years, basically. Which is to say that, ever since the 17th century, the Newtonian mechanics, classical mechanics, ruled the scientists’ notion of how the world worked. That changed even before atomic … this radiation. Things that were smaller than we realized. That was something that was developed, to get into quantum mechanics, related to quantum computing, about 100 years ago. This is actually something I have a fair bit of knowledge on because, as you know, I have been doing a game for the family of Dr. Albert Einstein recently.
Jon: Yes, that’s right.
Dirk: I’ve researched stuff quite a bit. A lot of it comes out of the work that was done in France with Marie Curie, and her husband, and a third fellow. I’m going to forget his name off the top of my head who was actually the first to find some of that stuff. Was really brought to life, in part, by Dr. Einstein, with his light quanta. Max Planck is often most associated with quantum mechanics, along with Niels Bohr who, a little bit later, maybe in the teens, was publishing some of the key things on the science. I’m going a little bit away from the computing but I find the history interesting so perhaps other people will, as well.
Quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity are basically competing theories to explain all of this stuff. All of the stuff that makes Newtonian mechanics no longer viable or correct. To this day, they both appear to be true and correct and it appears that they should not be able to co-exist with each other. From a theoretical perspective.
Jon: That’s right.
Dirk: It’s fascinating but it’s also the recentness of it. Again, these are things that are not proven, to a certain degree. Even the whole premise of both seem correct and both, theoretically, can’t co-exist makes it all seem ridiculous. Yet, here we have quantum computing, which seems viable and is certainly working within the model of quantum mechanics. This is all based on science that is barely over a century old, from the theoretical perspective, and now is becoming realized with computers that are remarkably more powerful than what we’ve been enjoying to this point.
Jon: I’m glad you raised some of the historical aspects to this because I’m actually in the midst of reading, I think it’s called, Life on the Edge. About quantum biology, how some biological systems have quantum factors involved in the way they operate. The example that the author digs into most is that of birds being able to detect the magnetic field of the earth when they are migrating.
There’s this interesting overlay of the world that we’re very familiar with this strange quantum mechanical world and with quantum computing, we’re finding that we can take advantage of the rule sets that govern quantum mechanics without fully understanding or, at least, for the average person not fully understanding what the implications are of these computers. Suffice it say, that’s probably true of the silicone-based computing that we have today. We understand the basics of how it works but by no means do we, at least for myself, understand the depths of the science.
Nonetheless, Moore’s Law, which has dictated the pace of computing and the way in which our technologies have advanced over the past several decades, is now likely to encounter with quantum computing … I don’t know if there’s going to be a corollary to Moore’s Law for quantum computing where, as opposed to doubling in power every eighteen months, all of a sudden this amount of computing power increases a million-fold. I don’t think that we can truly appreciate the numbers. A million times as fast, that is something that I have trouble grasping.
The implications for something like Artificial Intelligence which, fundamentally based on learning systems. All of a sudden, computers are going to be able to learn a million times faster? This is by no means happening tomorrow, of course, but what does that mean? What does that mean for any of the trends that we’re seeing? All the way down to societal acceptance of this kind of rapid innovation. I don’t know, but the fact remains, we’re potentially eighteen months out from a universal quantum computer. Which means that, frankly, we’re sitting right on the edge of what might be one of the more fantastic scientific breakthroughs of this, or any, century.
Dirk: Boy, wow. One of the most fantastic scientific breakthroughs of this, or any, century. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Maybe it is but that’s a huge statement. In terms of short term, how will this impact stuff? AI is the thing that is most likely to be impacted as the computer becomes more powerful and full of potential. As scientists and engineers figure out new and innovative ways to translate AI into this framework, it does have the potential to be extraordinarily more powerful than what we’ve had, up until this point.
Beyond that, a lot of it is just theoretical. Which is to say that the potential power of quantum computers is so superior to what we’re accustomed to today. I think a lot of the things are things that will just surprise us and be often, probably, unintended consequences of the better technology.
Jon: Yeah, to dial back my breathless enthusiasm, right? There’s always a period of … This is as much proof of concept as anything else. Google’s forthcoming universal quantum computer is likely to be just the first, initial step in what’s bound to be a long journey to get these computers commercialized. Especially, if you think about the powerful computing that will get applied to research or governmental concerns first, before making its way to the private sector. By no means am I expecting that, at the end of 2017, our day-to-day computing is going to get a million times faster.
It does make you think about those initial rockets that went to the moon and how the space program has progressed since then. Seeing this as an early-stage rocket that is going to have a lot of excellent results down the road and may, in fact, enable us to do things that we can only dream of today. I’ll say this, your call that Google was overtaking a lot of its technological competitors and it was really the most exciting tech company today, I think has proven out to be correct. I’m sure Google has been heading down this path for a long time. Just with this particular set of news, really solidifies, for me, that Google or Alphabet, I guess they are now, is really the private company to watch in the tech space.
Dirk: No question. Years ago when I made that prediction, I urged our listeners to buy stock and, if you’ve looked at the stock price since then, you’ve made a killing if you listened to me. If you didn’t, I think it’s still even a good time to buy now. Despite the price being very inflated, relatively speaking.
Jon: Yeah, Google’s going down all sorts of interesting paths and we cover them a lot on this show. Anyway, I’m going to be anxious to see how this turns out over the next couple of years to see if Google can make this achievement happen.
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Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer and thanks so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 172 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.