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Why quantum computing could be bigger than blockchain

By Jacques-Pierre (JP) Dumas, Tue 24 Jul 2018
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Everyone’s pegging quantum computing as the next big thing in enterprise technology—even bigger than Blockchain if such a thing is possible. Strip away the hype, and quantum computing does open some fascinating possibilities for businesses, though bringing it out of theoretical territory into reality will take some time. When that happens, quantum computing may be one of the most transformative developments in computing history. And at the same time, it won’t really change a thing.

What is Quantum Computing?

To understand quantum computing, we first need to look at how traditional computers operate. No matter how powerful they are, standard computing operates on binary units called “bits.” A bit is either a 1 or a 0, on or off, true or false. We’ve been building computers based on that architecture for the past 80 years or so, using the same bits that Alan Turing came up with when trying to crack German codes in World War II. 

That architecture has gotten us extremely far, but it does have its limits. Enter quantum computing—where a computer can look at the state of not just one bit at a time, but two. That means instead of two possible combinations—1 or 0—you end up with four possible combinations: {0,0}, {0,1}, {1,0}, or {1,1}. These four states represent a quantum bit, or what we’d call a “qubit.”

Two extra states might not seem a lot, but it’s literally an exponential increase on what we’ve had so far. Scale this out across the millions and billions of bits that today’s computers use, and you can start to appreciate just how much more power even a simple quantum computer could have over today’s most high-speed supercomputers. That makes it potentially possible to solve complex equations and problems that today’s computers can’t handle—things like predicting weather patterns years in advance or comprehending the intricacies of the human genome. Quantum computing has the possibility to bring these insights—still just out of reach—into our grasp.

So why haven’t we made the jump yet?

Quantum computing, as its relatively complex fundamentals suggest, has so far eluded even the best and brightest brains in R&D. A few companies like Microsoft and IBM are actively trying to build quantum servers, and Microsoft’s gone as far as developing a new quantum computing language, called Q#, with an SDK that developers can already run simulations on. Build an application on the SDK, and you can run it on a set of qubits once quantum computers become available.

Don’t hold your breath on a release date for those computers, however. Building commercially viable quantum computing hardware still faces a huge number of hurdles, largely due to the difficulties in building something where both “on” and “off” can exist simultaneously. It’s a problem that most leaders in this field have delved into particle physics to try and solve. And the smaller you go, the bigger your challenges—from measuring atomic spin accurately, to handling huge amounts of heat build-up—become.

Should IT care?

In a manner befitting quantum computing’s nature: yes and no. Yes, because quantum computing has the potential to offer businesses and technology managers the ability to solve otherwise intractable problems—those involving huge amounts of data and complexity, for example. That may help eliminate many of the day-to-day issues that IT faces in both the present and the future.

And the no? Because of its prohibitive costs, quantum servers aren’t likely to ever appear in IT departments. Businesses will probably only access them through clouds hosted by Microsoft, IBM, and other big-hitters in the enterprise R&D space. Aside perhaps from some government departments with seemingly bottomless budgets, it is most likely that quantum computing will be an exclusively Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offering, where security and operations are handled by the IaaS provider rather than the customer themselves.

Finally, quantum computing won’t solve many of the problems that IT faces every day. It can allow technologists to build far more complex models and simulations than we would’ve ever thought possible—something they may want to consider exploring already with tools like Microsoft’s Q# SDK. But when it comes to dealing with pointless meetings, or getting everyone to join a WebEx on time, or helping an executive find the “On” button for his latest gadget, there’s no computing power, quantum or otherwise, that can deal with these all-too-human problems. And for most IT teams, whether they’re handling operations, strategy, or a bit of both, I’d hazard that these will probably be the main causes of grief in their everyday work for a while.

Quantum computing could possibly change everything about IT, and at the same time, everything should stay the same—from our compute consumption models to the bugbears we face in the office. The best strategy for quantum? Keep waiting and watching, test out its possibilities for software development if you’re interested—just don’t get yourself entangled in the hype.   Article by Thomas LaRock, Head Geek, SolarWinds

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