Let’s face it, computers have come a long way in a relatively short time. From 30-ton slow behemoths taking up 80 or more square feet to pocket-sized 7-ounce lightning fast powerhouses resting comfortably in one hand. For the past 60 or so years, computers have not only become smaller, but significantly more powerful than their massive predecessors. For the most part, when computer components have become smaller, their computational power has increased.
However, there is a limit to how small classical computer components can get. When you get near the size of atoms you are no longer dealing with classical physics but quantum physics (the type of physics concerned with atoms and other really small things). Components in typical computers simply will not work at such small sizes. Things like gravity and even electricity work very differently at the atomic level. Quantum computers solve this problem by actually taking advantage of the unique properties of sub-atomic particles in order to perform computations.
Interestingly enough, while the quantum processor itself is relatively small (many about the size of the palm of your hand), the rig required to run the processor is huge. Some quantum computers are almost 100 square feet. One could describe it as a computer inside an MRI locked inside a massive refrigerator. The quantum processor requires both microwaves, as well as extremely low temperatures in the order of less than -400 degrees Fahrenheit to run properly.
Needless to say, this is a VERY complicated piece of technology. The potential computational power of a computer like this is exponentially greater than what typical computers are currently capable of. It is estimated that a complex computation that can take a typical computer thousands of years to complete, can take a quantum computer just a couple of seconds.
The implications in terms of computer-assisted decision-making are huge. From increased accuracy of weather prediction models, to sorting through billions of chemical molecular structure combinations, to even choosing the optimal scheduling for an NFL season, the big draw to quantum computers is in its potential to search through and analyze massive amounts of data extremely quickly, as well as its ability to simultaneously compute multiple complex calculations efficiently and provide a variety of possible solutions. Companies like D-Wave, Google, Microsoft and IBM, each have working quantum computers with varying levels of commercial availability. Particular interest has also been paid to the huge boost this technology can give to artificial intelligence (AI) research.
One of the many possible downsides here is that this kind of computer may have the power to break virtually all of the most complex passwords and security measures used today to secure the vast majority of our digital life. In a time when securing our privacy online is already a huge challenge, this is particularly concerning. With technology already embedded into so much of our daily lives, it is no wonder that the drive for more robust computing power is so strong.
So, is quantum computing a gateway to a new paradigm in high-tech or the stuff of some of the darkest science fiction movie ideas brought to life? Only time with tell. If size is an indicator of anything, then we are still many years away from any real mass use of this tech. But then again, when a piece of useful tech takes hold, it tends to move faster than many expect it to. Check out the video below for more info on quantum computing.