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Quantum Leap (Part 1 of 3): What is Quantum Computing?

By Matthew Dove (Digital Editor)

What you don’t know about quantum computing could fill a warehouse. Nothing personal, just a statement of fact. The good news is, you’re not alone…

Quantum computing could well prove to be the most seismic technological shift since the Turing machine, but it’s also so widely misunderstood that there’s only a handful of people who really know what they’re talking about. It’s felicitous then that industry experts Markus Braun, Adam Koltun, Abhineet Sarkar and Björn Stein have agreed to share their insights with me.

So, what is quantum computing, how can it be used in finance and should we all be afraid, very afraid? Furthermore, what’s this I keep hearing about quantum computing’s ability to break every encryption on the planet, including the supposedly unbreakable ones upon which blockchain technology is based?

What happens when unstoppable force meets immutable object?

What is quantum computing?

quantum computing
Markus Braun, JoS Quantum

The short answer is, it’s complicated.

Quantum computing (QC) is derivative of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics concerned with the study of nature in its smallest increments, specifically the energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles.

Markus Braun is the co-founder of Frankfurt’s JoS Quantum, a provider of quantum software products, and he’s first up to explain how this cerebral field relates to practical computing;

“Quantum computing is a completely new form of computation. All of our computers currently rely on zeroes and ones. By using quantum objects, like electrons, ions or atoms, quantum computers allow for values between zero and one. It’s easy to imagine if you think of a sphere, like the earth. With a classical computer, you can only travel from pole to pole, you can just go from zero to one. With a quantum computer you can also go in between and take another route, you can go to any possible point on the sphere.”

Quantum versus classical computing

For Braun, the prime advantages being proffered by this new breed of computation are simple; speed and power.

“Take, for example, that you’re a travelling salesman. You have to travel to different cities to reach all of your customers so you try to find the best route but you have n-factorial possible routes.

A quantum computer could provide an exponential upgrade for this system by simultaneously going through all these routes, it can do these kinds of calculations faster.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that quantum is set to eclipse classical computing, not any time soon at least.

“Of course, our classical computers are already good in many ways. In addition, multiplication and division, they’re perfectly fine. A quantum computer will always be a side thing. You’ll have a classical computer but when you need to use the highway, you’ll use a quantum computer which will be provided by the cloud.”

quantum computing
Adam Koltun, Quantum Resistant Ledger (QRL)

Adam Koltun, a blockchain consultant and business strategist with the Quantum Resistant Ledger (QRL), chimes in unison with Braun on this last point, emphasising that QC is bringing fireworks to the party and not a wrecking ball.

“The opportunities presented by quantum computers are not limitless, but they are vast. While they will not replace traditional computers, they will allow us to compute things that we cannot with current technology.

One of the strengths of quantum computers is that they have the potential to answer questions with large numbers of variables, and few solutions. One weakness of quantum computers is that they are extremely expensive to produce, and have limited applications. However, the technology is very young.”

To give you an impression of the kind of power that this fledgling processor is packing, a functional 100 qubit (quantum bits) computer would be more powerful than all the supercomputers on the planet right now combined. Just to put that in perspective, we’re at about 50 qubits now…

quantum computing
Björn Stein, Quantum Factory GmbH

As the co-founder of Quantum Factory GmbH and having experience in quantum optics and software development, Björn Stein can add to the discourse with considerable authority. With the characteristic objectivity of a scientist, Stein tempers his obvious enthusiasm for quantum innovation with a stiff pinch of pragmatism. “The biggest opportunity of quantum computing is simultaneously a strength and a weakness: It harnesses the entire computational power inherent in quantum physics. This is very powerful. Yet there’s also a big constraint on the engineering behind such a quantum computer.

Quantum computers must work on single particles whereas classical computers can work on billions of electrons at a time. This makes dealing with errors rather easy for classical computers. Quantum computers, however, must use elaborate schemes known as quantum error correction to deal with engineering tolerances or environmental interference.”

The picture that emerges from talking to those with feet on the ground and skin in the game is that of a flawed genius, quantum computing as a sort of techie Lord Byron, capable beyond comprehension but hamstrung by innate peccadilloes. The question is whether, like Byron, QC is mad, bad and dangerous to know…

Click here to read Quantum Leap (Part 2)…

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