A glimpse into the future of computing

Thousands of people flocked to Las Vegas this month, not for the usual attractions, but to attend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which is the world’s biggest annual electronics expo, where all the big names in tech bring out their latest tech toys for the world to see.

Among the new gadgets on show were a roll-up television, folding smartphones, domestic robot servants for the elderly, and robot legs that help you walk.

There was one announcement that perhaps did not raise as much excitement as the others, but is arguably the most significant step forward in computing since the 50s. It was when IBM unveiled the world’s first commercially available quantum computer, named the Q System One. The moment was reminiscent of the unveiling of Univac 1 in 1951.

Univac 1 was the world’s first commercially available computer. It weighed more than 8 tons and took up 35m² of space, needed dozens of people to operate and had its own cooling plant. Yet, it was not much more powerful than a modern pocket calculator.

A modern cellphone has nearly a million times the processing power and fourmillion times more memory. Nonetheless, it was state-of-the-art at the time, and back then no one could have predicted what computers would be like 70 years in the future.

Similarly, the Q System One is a pioneer in its space.

It isn’t perfect and to sceptics it might seem that we’ve stepped back 70 years to the Univac. But in reality, the Q System One has very little resemblance to any past or current computer. And the unveiling couldn’t have come at a better time.

Modern computers are extremely powerful, but not powerful enough to solve a large number of highly complex problems.

For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, scientists developing medicines could ideally do with ultra-powerful simulators that would be able to accurately predict what effect certain drugs would have on the human body. This would not only eliminate live testing, but also accelerate the process of developing new medicines.

Due to the complexity of the human body and of the drugs themselves, the power needed to run these simulations is beyond even today’s supercomputers. Then there is the challenge of big data.

We generate massive amounts of data every second and this data needs to be analysed to solve many problems in the business and scientific worlds.

A good example of this is the Square Kilometre Array in the Karoo. At its peak, it will generate 35 000 DVDs worth of data every second. That’s a lot of data to analyse.

Unfortunately, a lot of this data will never be thoroughly analysed because we simply do not have sufficient computing power to do so.

Worse still, we may not be able to build more powerful computers for some time.

At a very basic level, computers are powered by transistors and over the years, transistors have become exponentially smaller, allowing manufacturers to cram more of them into processors, making those processors exponentially more powerful.

The trouble is, we’ve come to a stage where the processors are so small that they are nearing the size of a few atoms. We cannot go smaller than this, because the laws of physics do not allow it.

Hence, we will not be able to make more powerful computers unless we find a radically new approach. The solution lies in quantum computing. Quantum computers do not rely on the same laws of physics as our transistor-based machines do and, to top it off, they are insanely powerful.

This comes from the fact that, instead of using physical transistors for processing, they use the amount (quanta) of energy stored in electrons. Eric Ladizinsky, a co-founder and chief scientist at D-Wave Systems, gives a good analogy to describe the power of quantum computers.

Let’s say we were looking for a specific mark on a page in a book in the library of congress (which has 50 million books).

A normal computer would accomplish this by scanning through every title, one at a time, until it finds the mark.

A quantum computer, on the other hand, will not search through the books one at a time. It will search through all 50 million books simultaneously.

With this incredible power, quantum computers will revolutionise computing, and will transform pretty much every industry.

Some of its most critical applications will be in astronomy, medicine, pharmaceuticals, transport and cybersecurity.

The quantum computing field is still in its infancy, there is still a long way to go before quantum computers surpass classic computers in usefulness but, as with the Univac computer, given time and more research, who knows what they will look like in 70 years time?

Quantum computers are definitely the future. Perhaps not our future, but the future of generations to come.

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