Our last article covered the history of computing – however, now we take a look to the future. And the future is quantum.

The word ‘binary’ is falling out of fashion: on or off; black or white; male or female. The memory used in a classical computer encodes binary ‘bits’ - one and zero. A quantum computer, on the other hand, uses ‘qubits’. A qubit can represent zero, one, or any quantum superposition of those two qubit states, which – in short – enables it to perform at a much faster rate than current, conventional computers.

Some predict quantum computers will come to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Yet others believe that the benefits will be outweighed by the drawbacks – such as cost – or that quantum computers simply cannot work, unable to perform the complexities demanded of them in the way we imagine. The deciding factor will be if the makers can ensure ‘quantum supremacy’ by achieving low error rates for their machines, and surpassing current computers.

Science fiction?

Hollywood has made many predictions regarding the future and artificial intelligence – some alarming, others encouraging. One of the most rapidly-growing research areas looks at the application of quantum computers in shaping artificial intelligence. In fact, some consider ‘machine learning’ the yardstick by which the field is measured.

The concept of machine learning – to ‘learn’ new information without explicit instruction or programming – has existed since 1959, although we still haven’t quite arrived at the vision laid down by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. But the belief is that quantum computing will help accelerate our progress in this area. What was once a fringe idea shunned by the wider science community, has grown to become a popular and viable field worthy of serious investment. 

From tiny acorns grow mighty oaks

The list of those investing heavily in this sector includes corporations including Microsoft, Intel, and IBM, and countries such as China are also heaping portions of their budget into research and development.

But despite such vast financial support, we are still a long way from mass-produced, commercially-available quantum computing solutions. It is impossible to accurately predict how the future will look, despite the best efforts of Hollywood. There may be a wide array of day-to-day benefits on the horizon, including advanced encryption, military applications, and more. However, we are now only in the early stages; we could still be decades away from fully realising the potential of qubits.

The outcomes, be they positive, negative, or any combination thereof, may be far-reaching. Are you interested in this pioneering field of study? If you are programming your own future to involve quantum computing, take a look at BSc (Hons) Computing or MSc Data Analytics & Enterprise Architecture.