Quantum mechanics describes the very very small, below the atomic level, where traditional physics stops working properly, and things become very strange. At this level, particles are both wave and particle at the same time, something even Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance”.
To try and make sense of the seemingly non-sensible, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger developed a metaphor to describe the quantum superposition – based on his cat, Milton.
- Imagine a cat in a box.
- In that box is a radioactive substance that might or might not decay.
- If it does decay, a toxin is released that kills the cat.
- However, to find out whether the radioactive substance has decayed, we need to open the box and see whether the cat is alive or dead.
- But opening the box will release the toxin – so we can’t open the box, we can’t have any contact whatsoever with the cat.
- So, is the cat alive or dead?
There’s no way to tell. According to this experiment, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. These two states are entangled together.
Fast forward 80 years and quantum computers use this notion to allow for processing that can exceed what current computers are capable of, even with artificial intelligence overlays.
Traditional computers are binary – 1 or 0, on or off. All computing – from putting satellites into space, to sending messages through Facebook – is an ever more complicated manipulation of these two states.
Quantum computers have these two states existing simultaneously – 1 and 0, on and off – allowing calculations to be made in parallel, not in sequence. That means faster, much, much, much faster processing. This ‘quantum entanglement’ – a veritable cattery of Schrödinger’s cats – can find answers far faster and more efficiently than any current system.
Consider data security and cryptography. With very few exceptions, data today is protected by a code – from a simple password to a very long randomly generated code. To crack this code, a computer could try every possible combination in sequence. Now, this could take hours, weeks, even years depending on the complexity. But if the options are running in parallel, across millions of processes, the results could come almost immediately. A test by Google on a 1,000-qubit machine developed by Canadian company D:Wave in 2015 found it to be 100 million times faster than a comparable traditional machine.
By considering every possible combination simultaneously, quantum computing kills traditional cryptography – good for thieves but bad for the rest of us.
The fallout could be significant with traditional methods of data security and encryption rendered utterly useless. Even cutting-edge crypto-currencies with security built in, such as Bitcoin, could be entirely redundant in the face of quantum computing. Unsurprisingly, researchers are now looking into quantum security measures to future-proof any system. The perpetual game of cat and mouse in security will continue.
However, quantum computing will bring order to what are currently chaotic situations. Consider a fiendishly complicated network of roads, millions of driverless (and human-driven) cars, buildings, pedestrians, and hazards. Bring any sort of order to a system that complicated would be a struggle for the most powerful supercomputers but a cinch for quantum computers, able to model and remodel the interactions in real time.
Quantum computing is coming, and with it will come a host of new opportunities and associated challenges. We may even discover the answer to who did kill Schrödinger’s cat.
Adam Howatson is the Chief Marketing Officer at OpenText.
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