Superfast computers built on the bizarre principles of quantum physics are coming, and when they finally get here, they’re going to change everything.
Eric Ladizinsky, cofounder of the quantum computing company D-Wave, gave a great explanation of the difference between a regular computer and a quantum computer during a talk at the WIRED 2014 conference in London.
Imagine you only have five minutes to find an “X” written on a page of a book in the Library of Congress (which has 50 million books). It would be impossible. But if you were in 50 million parallel realities, and in each reality you could look through the pages of a different book, in one of those realities you would find the “X.”
In this scenario a regular computer is you running around like a crazy person trying to look through as many books as possible in five minutes. A quantum computer is you split into 50 million yous, casually flipping through one book in each reality.
If this still sounds like magic or witchcraft, you’re not alone. Physicist Richard Feynman once famously said: “If you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics.”
The bottom line is that regular computers have to solve one problem at a time in sequence, but quantum computers can solve multiple problems at the same time. That kind of speed as the potential to revolutionize entire industries.
And it’s not just their speed. Quantum computers can solve the kind of complex problems that regular computers are really bad at solving. They’re more human-like in their problem solving approach, and that will make them better able to complement human tasks.
We definitely still have more tech issues to work out before we have fully-functioning quantum computers, but here are some of the most exciting future applications of quantum computing:
1. Really accurate weather forecasting
Even with cutting edge instruments that analyze temperature and pressure, there’s too many possible ways a given weather pattern can manifest itself, and current weather forecasting is an educated guess at best, Ray Johnson, a board member at the startup quantum computing company QxBranch, told Business Insider.
Quantum computing could analyze all that data at once and give us a better idea of when and where bad weather will strike. We’d have advanced notice of major storms like hurricanes and the extra prep time could help save lives.
Director of engineering at Google, Hartmut Neven, also noted wrote that quantum computers could help build better climate models that could give us more insight into how humans are influencing the environment. These models are what we build our estimates of future warming on, and help us determine what steps need to be taken now to prevent disasters. Knowing more about how our climate scenario will play out can only help us in the long run.
2. More efficient drug discovery
Developing a new drug is a complicated process.
Chemists have to test tons of different molecular combinations to find one that actually has properties that are effective against a disease. This process can take years and cost millions of dollars. Chemists bring tons of these combinations to later-stage trials and many of them still end up failing.
A quantum computer would be able to map out trillions of molecular combinations and quickly identify the ones that would most likely work, significantly cutting down the cost and the time of drug development.
Quantum computing could also sequence and analyze a person’s genes much faster than the methods we have now, and that could also help make personalized drugs and healthcare more available to the masses.
Right now, many drugs don’t make it to market because, for example, a small subset of people react particularly badly to it. So we usually kill that drug even though it might be helpful for some people. With personalized gene analysis and better drug knowledge we could predict these bad interactions.
3. No more traffic nightmares
Quantum computing could streamline both air traffic and ground-based traffic control because they’re so good at quickly calculating the optimal route.
If you’re planning a road trip with 10 different stops, a regular computer would have to individually calculate the length of all the possible routes you could take and then figure out the best one. A quantum computer could calculate the length of all the routes at the same time and arrive at the optimal route much faster — these are the exact kinds of calculations needed for directing airplanes or analyzing traffic.
Sophisticated analysis of air traffic patterns using a quantum computer would mean more efficient flight scheduling and would cut down on travel time since we could better avoid bottle-necking in airport take offs and landings.
The same technique could be applied to highways and complicated city grids to avoid congestion.
4. Beefing up military and defense
Satellites are constantly collecting tons of images and video. There’s far more data than anyone could ever search through, so a lot of it just gets tossed aside, Johnson said. We might miss crucial intelligence in some of that discarded data.
A quantum computer would sort through that mountain of data much faster than a regular computer or a human could, and it could point us to which images and videos we should take a closer look at and which ones we can just ignore and throw out.
Regular computers aren’t very good at this “Where’s Waldo?” kind of recognition, but, like humans, quantum computers are really good at picking out specific details from a messy background.
5. Secure, encrypted communication
We use encryption all the time whether we realize it or not. We rely on it when we sign into an email account or use our credit card to buy something online.
It’s possible to make encryption even more secure by using the same weird quantum mechanics property that makes a quantum computer work.
This ultra-secure communication is called quantum key distribution and it allows someone to send a message to someone else that only they can read by using a key to decipher it. If a third party intercepts the key then, thanks to the weird magic of quantum mechanics, it becomes useless and no one can read the message. A preliminary version of this kind of communication technology is used by a few places in Europe, but it’s still largely unavailable in the US.
But while the same principle of quantum computing could make communication more secure, quantum computers could make it much much easier to break the encrypted messages that we have now. Some of Edward Snowden’s leaked documents from the NSA describe the agency’s plan to develop quantum computers to do just that.
If a hacker (or nosy government) ever got their hands on a working quantum computer, more old-school encrypted data from places like banks and governments could be in serious danger.
6. Accelerating space exploration
Astronomers have discovered nearly 2,000 confirmed planets outside our solar system using the Kepler space telescope.
The Kepler search involves peering at these distant so-called exoplanets and waiting for them to pass in front of their host star. When that happens, the exoplanets cast a shadow that astronomers can then analyze and make predictions about whether their atmosphere is suitable for life or not.
A quantum computer could tackle more data in any given telescope view, spot more exoplanets, and help quickly identify which ones have the most potential to harbor life. It could even uncover exoplanets that Kepler missed during its first run through older images.
7. Machine learning and automation
It sounds super creepy, but like humans, quantum computers can learn from experience. They can self correct. For example, a quantum computer could actually modify the code of a program that keeps messing up.
This concept is called machine learning — it’s similar to how your Facebook news feed changes based on which posts you “like,” but much more sophisticated.
The machine learning of quantum computers could help us do a lot of things much faster and much more efficiently, and continued improvement of the function of quantum computers by quantum computers could lead to things like semi-automatic vehicles and other advanced forms of artificial intelligence.
All of these applications are exciting, but we’ve got a ways to go before they’re available. Still, some of the major players working on quantum computers include Google and NASA, and when big companies like these get involved with new cutting edge technology like this, we usually don’t have to wait that long for big breakthroughs.
Johnson thinks we are on the cusp of big discoveries that will open up these applications, but they’re really just the beginning.
“I think it’s going to have many many applications that we can’t even think of today,” Johnson said.
This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Author: Kelly Dickerson is a science reporter at Business Insider, covering space and physics.
Image: A 12-inch wafer is displayed at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in Xinchu January 9, 2007. REUTERS/Richard Chung.