Quantum computing: What it is and how it is used in practice

Quantum computing is becoming more and more real - and commercially available - but how can it help businesses reimagine themselves?
21 May 2018

A glimpse of IBM’s quantum computer. Source: Facebook / Nanotechnology Today

Now that computer transistors (the switching and memory components of computers) are as small as we can make them, the race is on to figure out how to create the next computer solution to solve today’s intractable problems—those that are unsolvable by today’s computers in a reasonable timeframe.

Many believe the answer is found in quantum computers. While there are quantum computers created, they aren’t yet stable or commercially viable.

Quantum computing solves different problems

Quantum computers won’t replace personal computers, because they were created to solve different and more complex problems than classical computers. You wouldn’t use a quantum computer to write a blog or access the internet to read today’s top headlines.

However, there are some problems that require higher processing power to solve than we currently have.  To find a solution for increased computing power that is smaller than today’s transistors, it requires going to the atomic and subatomic level.

How does quantum computing work?

Classical computers use bits that can exist in two states. They use zeros and ones to represent those states and can be thought of as an on and off switch. Classical computers are generally limited to doing one thing at a time. Quantum computers use quantum bits that are called qubits.

In the quantum realm, atoms and subatomic particles act in unexpected ways—qubits can exist in two places at once and can move forward or backward in time. If you imagine a sphere, bits would be at either end of the sphere at the poles, while quantum bits can exist at any point in the sphere.

As a result of all of these possibilities, quantum computers can assess and solve problems exponentially faster (a million times or more) than classical computers.

What’s holding back full adoption of quantum computers?

Since it sounds like there is incredible potential with quantum computers, why aren’t they widely used in business today? While there are certainly computing innovators such as Google or IBM who have had success in developing a quantum computer, quantum computers remain very fragile.

Any kind of vibration can impact the atoms and destroy the quantum state and the superposition of being in multiple states at the same time.

They also need to be kept very cold to maintain their stability. Computer engineers are still working on the best way to build them. In addition, although the hardware is almost there to support quantum computing, quantum software needs to be developed.

How is quantum computing used in practice?

We currently create more than 2.5 exabytes of data every day, and that amount is only increasing.

As the data that needs to be processed increases, so will our need for the strength of computing power quantum computing provides us. Here are a few ways quantum computers can or will be used in practice:

Solve intractable and complex problems quickly

Google claims they have a quantum computer that is 100 million times faster than any system we have today. With this power, we’re better able to process the vast amounts of data we create and solve incredibly complex problems very efficiently. What is currently impossible or difficult for today’s computers to process, quantum computers can process in seconds. The applications for this type of rapid processing in almost every industry are immense.

Analyze huge data sets to spot patterns

The larger our data sets become, the more challenging and time consuming it is for classical computers to spots patterns and anomalies that lead to business insights. Classical computers must process information in a linear fashion, while quantum computers have the capability to look at multiple things at one time.

Encrypt data

While most of the headlines you read about quantum computing and data encryption warn of the reality that quantum computers will be able to crack our current methods of data encryption, the flip side is that they would also be able to create even more secure replacements. While there is a threat and a change required to the way we treat data security today when quantum computers are widely adopted, there is also tremendous opportunity.

Optimization issues and machine learning

Quantum computers will be able to discern the optimal way to solving a problem whether that be figuring out the fastest delivery route or the best treatment for the specific healthcare needs and genetic makeup of an individual. There’s also great potential for a quantum computer to improve machine learning.

As with any new technological frontier, there will be many new applications and implications that require thoughtful considerations required as quantum computing matures, but one thing is certain—it will change our world.