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The Fascinating World of Quantum Computing

The tech world is a-buzz with talk of quantum computing. Depending on who you ask, it’s the way of the future, or scarier than AI. RSnake spoke with William Hurley (aka Whurley) Founder and CEO of quantum computing start-up Strangeworks to find out where quantum computing is headed, and what pitfalls to look out for.

What is Quantum Computing?

Very simply put, quantum computing takes principles used in quantum mechanics and applies them to computers. Current computers use a binary coding system (0 or 1) to create the programs we use today. However, quantum physicists have discovered that particles can occupy in- between states. Neither 0 nor 1, but in a liminal space between the two realities. In his conversation with RSnake, Hurley explained it this way; when you flip a coin and it lands, it will be either heads or tails – 0 or 1. But when the coin is in the air, it’s in a state of possibility, neither 0 nor 1. “It’s in a quantum superposition of some probability of a 1 or a 0,” he explained. Physicists and computer engineers have found a way to create quantum processors. These use particles that exist in a quantum superposition or wave state. These particles are then influenced with algorithms, and the results are measured. This is quantum computing. Where a traditional computer uses bits to process information, quantum computing uses a variety of qubits. “If you have 4 bits you have 16 outcomes, and a classical computer can be in any one of those outcomes at that moment in time. But if you have 4 qubits, it could be in all 16 outcomes at the same time,” said Hurley. As a result, quantum computers have the advantage of analyzing multiple scenarios concurrently, instead of sequentially like classical computers.

The Pros and Cons of Quantum Computing

Hurley explained that since quantum processors can analyze information in this way, they have the potential to revolutionize our world. “I don’t care about better drug discovery; I care about eradicating disease. I don’t care about new battery technology in chemistry, I care about new forms of travel we’ve never even imagined,” he said. “There will be a post-quantum world.” However, Hurley doesn’t see quantum computers replacing traditional ones. He said the technology is “going to interweave and fit and advance – I see it as an augmentation to computing.” There are many possible applications for this technology. Hurley believes it will be used in our everyday lives, making internet searches faster and better. But, in Hurley’s opinion, it will have the greatest impact on finance, the pharmaceutical industry, and materials science. Of course, any technology can be used for productive or destructive purposes. “It can and will be weaponized,” said Hurley. One concern is that since quantum computers are super powered, they can easily break through current encryption. When asked about this possibility, Hurley said, “It’s not an ‘if’, it’s a ‘when’.” RSnake, with his security background sees this as a concerning threat. While Hurley is generally unconcerned about this issue, he did admit it could cause problems for national security. “Countries you don’t want to have a nuclear weapon might have one,” he said. Despite this, Hurley is positive about the future, explaining that technology will also advance to solve privacy concerns – Mission Impossible style. “You’re going to have quantum communications where you use entanglement. If I have a communication with you, and you observe it, the act of you observing it destroys all of it,” he enthused. Hurley is more concerned about the impact of quantum computing on risky technologies, saying the danger will come from new capabilities in genetic engineering or hypersonic weapons.

The Current State of Quantum Computing R&D

But how close are these new realities? Hurley said, “We’re moving from advanced research to applied research. We’re somewhere in the middle of the arc.” Many companies and countries are competing to advance this technology. IBM created a quantum processor with 433 qubits last year. Researchers in the Netherlands made an interesting advance when they succeeded in teleporting quantum information. Strangeworks currently offers quantum computing to companies through its platform. “We will have a quantum internet in our lifetime. I say 2035. There are already tests in Chicago, Europe, everywhere. This stuff works,” said Hurley. Unsurprisingly, the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) is involved in quantum technology, which includes research on a number of applications including computing and communications. Hurley, a passionate, self-identified “evangelist” for quantum technologies, helps to fundraise for CERN researchers as part of his role as CERN and Society Foundation First Ambassador.

What is Decoherence and Why is it Important?

Quantum processors operate using quantum particles called qubits. When quantum particles are entangled, they work together. Quantum processors, like the ones built by IBM, are made up of a number of entangled qubits. IBM’s latest processor uses 433. In order to get data from a quantum processor, it is necessary to measure how various algorithms affect the qubits. However, sometimes there are unexpected variables that cause the quantum particles in a state of superposition (the flipping coin in the air) to collapse into a classical state (heads or tails), causing errors. This is called decoherence. Unfortunately, many things can cause decoherence from stray atoms to rogue air molecules, posing a big challenge for quantum computing. Some quantum processors, for example, have to be kept in freezing temperatures to minimize the likelihood of decoherence. Among other companies, IBM is working to solve the problem of decoherence using three major strategies, error suppression, error mitigation, and error correction.

EQUALS Global Partnership for Women in Tech

Working towards an equitable quantum future means leveling the playing field for women around the world to work and participate in technology. As it stands, in developing nations, 25%-45% fewer women are able to access the internet than men. As a result, they are both denied the ability to access the vast amounts of information the internet provides, and unable to advance in higher-paid employment. Hurley spends what time he can helping to improve these statistics as Co-Founder & Global Mentor of the EQUALS Global Partnership. This organization was originally created in part by UN Women. Its mission is to ensure equal access to digital technologies by 2030. Having more women in computing, especially quantum technology, could make a difference in the direction of the industry. Among other benefits like equalizing the gender pay gap, some research has found that female entrepreneurs tend to focus more on businesses that make a contribution to society, where men tend to focus more on financial gain.

The Takeaway

These days, developments in technology are moving faster than the speed of light. Quantum computing has the potential to help people solve problems like never before, and raises serious questions about privacy and how science and technology should be used. To find out more, listen in to RSnake and Hurley’s conversation on quantum computing, entrepreneurship and more.

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