Is the computer a true revolution in the tech world or just a mundane fabrication by physicists?

Published: 2024-04-29
Author: Danila Naumenko

What have you heard about the “quantum computer”? It’s some incredibly complex, semi-mythical device, so powerful that it could easily take us to space. It’s unseen by anyone, its functionality remains uncertain, but it’s said that if it works… it will be a game-changer. Interestingly, most of this is true to some extent. So, let’s be the first to dissect this mysterious box of science and peek into how this rocket science is structured.

It may seem that modern information technology has already reached its pinnacle: no radical changes, gigantic leaps in connectivity speed, or global breakthroughs in cybersecurity are expected.

This was similar to what people thought at the end of the 18th century, traveling in horse-drawn carriages. What could fundamentally change? Comfortable carriages, equipped with fast horse teams, easily carried huge loads on their shoulders and served as the long-haul truckers of the Renaissance era. Perhaps, at the stud farms, they never even considered breeding new, more enduring breeds to better fulfill their tasks, nor did they consider implementing a new type of suspension in carriages for crossing cobblestone streets with unprecedented comfort.

However, since the early 19th century, engineers around the world have been testing their self-propelled carriages powered by steam, electric, and gas engines. Naturally, almost all of these inventions were extremely inconvenient, and many were even dangerous: for example, steam boilers could explode dramatically if mishandled.

Today, entire institutes, scientific teams, laboratories, and individual engineers are working on creating quantum computers. Yes, their operation currently requires extremely low temperatures and a high degree of user awareness, and, to put it mildly, such computers are inconvenient to use since they lack interfaces. To clarify, they lack interfaces for now. However, going back to horse-drawn carriages, it took people more than 50 years to adapt such an iron box as the automobile for mass production and make it accessible to everyone. Imagine how many years it will take before the quantum computer takes its rightful place as a familiar home helper. So why was this semi-mythical cumbersome box invented, and why should we await its emergence?
In comparison with horse-drawn carriages, automobiles became exponentially more powerful – after all, a motor could replace an entire herd of horses. Moreover, the advent of the automobile revolutionized the understanding of road traffic and traffic safety. The quantum computer has made a similar revolution.

The foundation of classical computers is the representation of information in the form of bits. Bits are switches with “on” and “off” positions, which can be used to record information, process data, store photos and videos, and also launch programs. And all this works very well today on that very primitive “muscle power.” In a quantum computer, another kind of power is used, both in terms of its strength and uniqueness, called a qubit (quantum bit).

Why does the qubit make the entire scientific world tremble? Because the familiar choice of either 1 or 0 disappears. A qubit can be both 1 and 0 at the same time. Just imagine – a light bulb is simultaneously on and off, it’s both coolly raining and scorchingly hot outside, the world simultaneously exists and does not exist.

If a regular bit can be represented as a switch “on” or “off,” then a qubit is best imagined as a coin tossed in the air: it is simultaneously heads and tails until we decide to “measure” or catch it. At the moment of measurement, the magic is destroyed, and the qubit takes on a specific value.

The thing is, a qubit is not quite an ordinary coin and can take on the value of 0 or 1 with different probabilities. That is, by measuring the state of the same qubit 1000 times, we might get the value of 1, 999 times and only once, in good weather, with a tailwind, get a value of 0. How is that even possible? It’s hard to believe, but smart quantum physicists have learned to work and calculate things in this chaos! But for all the average users, all this magic will stay inside the hardware, just like internal combustion engines, oil changes, defect inspections, and fuel system cleaning.
Quantum technologies promise not only to learn to store a huge amount of data, which will make it possible to keep minute-by-minute photos for archives on a quantum server or hard drive but also to operate vast arrays of data. How vast? Immense.

Imagine a simple task: three people and two bars they can go to, and each person can only go to one bar. How many different combinations of people in bars can there be? “Easy,” you’d say, and you’d be right. Each can go to one of the two bars, which means there are only 2 possible outcomes for each person. 222 = 8 options.Excellently! Now, let’s say we decided to throw a party and invited 100 friends, distributing them into the same two bars… 222… and so on, 100 times. 2^100 = 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376. If you ask the most powerful supercomputer to solve this problem not analytically (as we did, by reasoning) but by going through all possible event options, it would take slightly longer than the existence of our universe. So, thanks to their conceptually new nature, quantum computers would be able to handle tasks of this complexity in approximately 0.000002 seconds.

Such power will, of course, not be used to count the number of people in bars but for computer modeling of large systems inaccessible to our conventional computers.

For instance, scientists currently working on fluid dynamics, aerodynamics of flying objects, or atmospheric behavior typically simplify the tasks they work on. This simplification leads to solutions that don’t fully describe the system and have some (sometimes quite narrow) boundaries of application. That is, if scientists want to track the impulse of throwing a pebble into water, with the current level of computer technology, it would be necessary to accept such limitations: the pebble is strictly spherical, the angle is chosen very specifically, the air density near the water is the same as everywhere around, there is no wind, etc. In the case of throwing a pebble, scientists’ calculations will almost always be accurate, but if the weather conditions are more complex, and the speed of the pebble’s throw is much greater, then the entire model will fail, and a new one will have to be devised. Quantum technologies, however, will allow for much more information about the object and the environment to be considered in calculations. Quantum technologies can even take into account the memory and the trail left in the air by the pebble before it plunged into the water. A miracle!
“Wait a minute!” you might say. If that’s the case, then criminals could also use this powerful computing speed. After all, quantum computers can go through numbers much faster than their binary counterparts that everyone has on their desks.” And again, you would be partly right.

Modern encryption systems assume that, in theory, criminals could crack the password to any system, but it would take them so long that either the information would become outdated and no longer relevant, or the criminals themselves would have to write a will to their grandchildren’s grandchildren, asking them not to turn off the computer while the program is still running. In other words, nearly all of cybersecurity relies on the “weakness” of modern computers. The problem is that at the time of writing security protocols, no one knew that quantum computers would appear, capable of solving the most complex cracking tasks in seconds. Is the modern internet and data storage ready for such assaults? Very doubtful. Are criminals ready to go back to school to refresh their quantum physics and then spend several years in laboratories? Doubly doubtful.

Now, we are witnessing how the history of technology has made another turn in its evolution. The advent of automobiles, and more importantly their demand, forced corporations to create research centers, sponsor studies, establish entire ministries, and develop legal frameworks. Such a simple and understandable iron box as a car had to be dedicated decades before traveling in it became safe. Soon, governments of all countries will have to shell out for research in quantum cybersecurity in such volumes that modern IT specialists will be envious.

All that remains for us is to wish everyone quantum luck in the not-so-distant future!

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