Quantum mechanics is not an easy topic to wrap your head around — it engages with the very mystery of the universe at the subatomic scale. While turn-of-the-century scientists once considered quantum mechanics spooky, scientists have since discovered how we can use it — and associated phenomena like superposition and entanglement — in computation.
Quantum computing differs from classical computing because it utilizes these phenomena to process information in ways not possible for classical, binary computers. Katie Pizzolato, Director of Quantum Theory & Computational Science at IBM, recently joined Round to discuss how this ever-evolving technology works, its relative advantages (and disadvantages) over traditional computers, and why she’s excited about it. Here are four key takeaways.
Traditional computers encode data using binary digits called bits, which can take on two discrete states, 0 and 1. Quantum computing processes information using qubits; the state of a qubit can be any (complex) continuous combination of 0 and 1. The operations of a quantum computer transform the states of the qubits it contains, interfering and entangling them. The operations of a quantum computer transform the states of its qubits by interfering with and entangling them. In doing so, quantum computers create exponential states, which provide a much richer space to encode information. Quantum computation then leverages these states to process data in new and faster ways than traditional computation.
Because qubits provide a much richer space to encode information, we can use quantum computers to solve increasingly complicated problems, where classically tackling those self-same problems might incur exponential resource requirements. But Pizzolato doesn’t foresee a future where quantum computers replace traditional computers entirely. Instead, she views quantum as a specific lens suited to tasks like molecular modeling, factoring, or even simulating quantum mechanics. Plus, classical computers will continue to fight back against quantum’s gains! According to Pizzolato, many believe the first applications of quantum computing might show classical computers how to improve their functioning.
Pizzolato identifies three main challenges in working with quantum computers. First, not every problem is suited for quantum computing, so we have to find the ones that are. Second, we have to map the problem to the quantum computer. That means looking at the problem from a different angle and figuring out how to use this type of computation to derive value from it. And third, she says, we have to beat the problem. While scientists are still actively researching what specific problems can derive value from quantum computing, select industries are already getting started. Boeing, for example, wanted to optimize the construction of structural parts of their planes (like the wings or the fuselage) to build faster, lighter planes. Boeing and IBM approached this problem with a quantum lens and developed a novel quantum algorithm for binary optimization that uses a quantum relaxation of the original problem. This relaxation encodes many classical variables into a small number qubits, thereby allowing a resource efficient way to map this problem to a quantum computer.
Pizzolato suspects that many organizations have a hidden quantum champion, someone who’s taken a particular interest in the field or even graduated with a quantum degree but decided not to pursue academia for whatever reason. If you want to launch a quantum team at your company to explore the potential of quantum computing, start by identifying this champion. Otherwise, Pizzolato recommends that anyone interested in learning about quantum check out the wealth of free education available on the internet and join open-source communities. Even if buying a quantum computer exceeds your budget, you can still experiment with one of the 20+ quantum computers IBM has made available on the cloud for free for anyone to use. We are at the beginning of a new age of computation, and if you want to get involved and learn more, you can.
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