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Is Quantum the Future of High-Performance Analytics?

Quantum computing is still more theory than practice, but it might answer questions that are unsolvable by current computers. Earlier this year, IBM made a small quantum computer available via the cloud.

If you think quantum computing sounds like something out of science fiction, you’re not alone. It’s still more theory than practice, but it might be able to answer questions that are unsolvable by current computers. Earlier this year, IBM made a small quantum computer available via the cloud.

Quantum Mechanics and the Weirdness of Particles

To understand quantum computers, you must first know a little bit about quantum mechanics. In the briefest possible description, quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that models how particles behave at the smallest scales.

It’s important because particle behavior is counterintuitive at small scales; particles do not obey the rules of classical physics. You may have heard of the double-slit experiment, one of the foundations of quantum mechanics. (Here’s one fairly straightforward explanation.)

In short -- originally conducted in the 19th century to determine whether light behaved as a wave or a particle, the double-slit experiment ultimately showed that light behaves as both a wave and a particle. The experiment has also demonstrated the same is true of individual electrons, and that if it is not being observed or interfered with, a single electron can interfere with itself as though it exists in many places at once.

Quantum Computing

A quantum computer is based not on bits, but on quantum bits, called qubits. Rather than being either 0 or 1, qubits can be 0, 1, or 0 and 1 at the same time (called quantum superposition). Qubits can also affect each other in ways that normal bits cannot.

The upshot is that with this additional level of memory, a quantum computer could run all possible variations on a problem exponentially faster, thus allowing it to easily perform a calculation that would take a regular computer years (or even millennia). Imagine using the technology to run analysis on your largest data set in minutes, not hours or days.

Bear in mind, “universal” quantum computers that can attempt any problem are still theoretical or highly experimental. However, IBM projects that the first “true quantum speedup over conventional computing” could happen as soon as the next five years.

Devices called “quantum annealers” that solve specific applications using quantum effects have been tested and built, but no significant advantages over traditional computers have yet been proven.

Applications of Quantum Computing

Even though we aren’t yet using quantum computers, some specific uses may be coming soon.

Cryptography: This is the main one for enterprises to be aware of. Any safety that relies on a computer’s inability to run a code-breaking algorithm within a reasonable time frame is completely useless against a device with quantum properties. Quantum effects may also be used in the creation of new, more secure cryptography.

Medical research: The complicated math involved in protein folding or other advanced medical research would be an ideal task for a quantum computer.

Massive search: Big data is getting bigger all the time, and quantum algorithms may eventually be extremely efficient at searching for connections within vast amounts of data.

A group of researchers working in quantum science recently answered questions on Reddit, and one of the most common questions was: When will quantum computers become household devices? The truth is -- they might never be.

One researcher responded, “I can't see them becoming commonplace. The main tasks we'd use them for are scientific in nature [such as] simulating chemistry and other tiny things that are too complicated for our current computers to chew on. But they said that about normal computers and look what happened! It all depends on whether a household application is found for quantum computers. Once that happens, someone will find a way to make one to sell to you.”

Learn More with IBM’s Project

To learn more about quantum computers and even submit your own algorithm, explore the IBM Quantum Experience. IBM has built a small quantum computer with a 5-qubit processor, and researchers there are making it available via online portal to anyone interested in learning about it.

The qubits in IBM’s computer are made out of superconducting materials; they are controlled by electromagnetic pulses and are housed in a dilution refrigerator kept at just above absolute zero (about -273 degrees Celsius).

It’s science, even though it sounds like science fiction. Quantum mechanics relies on principles that are completely foreign to most people’s lives, such that even scientists and researchers can have trouble explaining it.

What you need to know is that quantum computing has the potential to solve the unsolvable -- and it might open up new worlds in information processing.

About the Author

Lindsay Stares is a production editor at TDWI. You can contact her here.

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