Quantum Computers Will Transform the World — We Hope

Stephen DeAngelis

December 24, 2014

Eric Ladizinsky, co-founder of D-Wave, the Canadian firm claiming to have produced the world’s first commercial quantum computer, asserts that quantum computers are not just the next generation of super computers they represent a complete paradigm shift in the world of computing — or, at least, they will. At WIRED2014, a conference held in London earlier this year, Ladizinsky told participants that we are in the very earliest stages of discovering how to make, use, and exploit quantum computers. [“Why quantum computing will be civilisation’s next big revolution,” by Katie Collins (@katieecollins), Wired, 16 October 2014] He told the audience that every new discovery goes through at least two waves of maturation:

“Whenever there is a revolution in our civilisation — whether that’s the discovery of fire, tool-making, agriculture or electronic — there is always a first revolution in the use of a resource. However, at this time ‘we don’t know how to manipulate it in a detailed way’. It means that it is always followed by a second revolution — a paradigm shift — during which we learn to grapple with the resource when its use has grown beyond our initial understanding. This is where we are with computing now, he believes.”

Ladizinsky believes that quantum computing is being developed at the precise moment in history when it is most needed. Networks have become so large that humans no longer completely understand how they work or how to control them. Ladizinsky points to meltdowns in financial services networks and how, in the aftermath of those meltdowns, analysts state they don’t know what happened. “Right now,” Ladizinsky stated, “we’re not necessarily able to extract meaningful insights from that data on timescales that matter.” Collins adds, “This is where quantum computing comes in.” She continues:

“Ladizinsky asks the audience to imagine that they had five minutes to find an ‘X’ he had written on a page of a book in the Library of Congress. You wouldn’t be able to do it, but if you were in 50 million parallel realities, and in each you looked at several pages each, you would be able to. This would be conditional of course on you being able to collaborate with your other selves, in order to do it in an organised way, ensuring that one of you definitely came up with the right answer. ‘We call talking to your other selves coherent evolution. If they’ve all talked to each other, one of them will have come across the answer. We can’t do this as humans, but we can do this in the lab now,’ he says. ‘It turns out the world we live in is a very strange place. Physical systems can play out the possibilities simultaneously, and those possibilities can talk to each other.’ While the point of quantum computing is that it can solve mysteries beyond those that the human mind is capable of, building a quantum computer itself is a mystery that is still being solved. Ladizinsky works for the company D-Wave, which has already made huge leaps towards this, developing technology that is now being used to search for exoplanets, among other things. While the work is far from over, Ladizinsky is hopeful.”

Ladizinsky noted that when fire was first “discovered,” humankind didn’t know how to make it but knew it would prove useful for such things as providing warmth and cooking food. Once humankind learned how to harness fire they were able to confine it, control it, and make it burn hotter. That led to amazing advances like metalwork and glassware. When it comes to quantum computing, we are still in the early stages of the first revolution; but, we are already imagining what can happen when the second revolution arrives. For example, Professor Zhaokai Li and his colleagues at the University of Science and Technology of China have demonstrated “machine learning on a quantum computer for the first time. Their quantum computer can recognise handwritten characters, just as humans can do, in what Li and [company] are calling the first demonstration of ‘quantum artificial intelligence’.” [“First Demonstration Of Artificial Intelligence On A Quantum Computer,” The Physics arXiv Blog, 14 October 2014] The article concludes:

“Physicists are racing to build quantum computers that can handle significantly more qubits. This is a race with fame and fortune at the end of it. There is no shortage of runners and the team that pulls it off will find an important place in the history of computing and physics in general. With a few hundred qubits, who knows what quantum artificial intelligence could do.”

That last sentence captures the anticipation and excitement that most researchers feel when they contemplate the future of quantum computing. Like Ladizinsky, they think that quantum computers will change the world. Quantum computers are often tied to another subject that pundits believe will spawn a communications revolution — the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT, which will facilitate machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, is predicted to be exponentially larger than the World Wide Web that connects humans. Ensuring that all of those connections are made efficiently is going to require an enormous amount of computing power. Using quantum computers, writes Henrik Bendix, “The internet of the future could be considerably more efficient.” [“Quantum computing: designing the internet of the future,” ScienceNordic, 29 October 2014] Bendix explains:

“The reason for this is that data can be transferred in new ways if the laws of nature that regard nature’s smallest components — i.e., quantum physics — are employed. ‘Using quantum information theory, we are trying to find out how we can communicate more effectively by way of quantum physics,’ says Matthias Christandl, professor at the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. When we communicate optimally, for instance over the phone — the information transfer is based on classical physics. Each information unit, i.e., each bit, is transferred by means of a number of particles that pass between the two people talking. But that’s not the only way of communicating, explains Christandl. ‘If single quantum particles are used instead, the information can be transferred more efficiently — and more securely, for that matter. For instance, the quantum particles could be photons where the information is hidden in the photons’ condition.'”

The ultimate vision for some researchers (and the ultimate nightmare for others) is the development of quantum artificial general intelligence. According to an article published by Physics Central, you might not even need a fully functioning quantum computer to make an intelligent machine. “According to the authors of a paper published in the journal Physical Review X last July,” the article states, “adding a dash of quantum mechanics could do the trick.” [“A Quantum Walk Toward Artificial Intelligence,” Physics Central, 10 October 2014] One company that believes quantum computing will change the world is Google, which has established a Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab. [“What Is a Quantum Computer, and Why Is Google Building One?Tech Cheat Sheet, 22 October 2014] That headline is not exactly accurate. Google isn’t building a quantum computer; it is using one it purchased from Ladizinsky’s company, D-Wave. As the one of the world’s premier search engine optimization companies, Google certain has interest in becoming even better. A company press release explains:

“With an integrated hardware group the Quantum AI team will now be able to implement and test new designs for quantum optimization and inference processors based on recent theoretical insights as well as our learnings from the D-Wave quantum annealing architecture. We will continue to collaborate with D-Wave scientists and to experiment with the ‘Vesuvius’ machine at NASA Ames which will be upgraded to a 1000 qubit ‘Washington’ processor.”

With that kind of interest and backing, progress towards building a quantum computer that can usher in the second revolution envisioned by Ladizinsky will continue to be made. When the second revolution does arrive, quantum computers will be able to tackle problems that currently appear to be intractable or too complicated to understand. Hopefully, that will help change the world for the better.