Postmodernism. British cuisine. The ongoing popularity of the Real Housewives media empire. There are some things in heaven and earth that are just hard to wrap your head around. Add quantum computing to the list. Here’s the simple explanation: unlike your run-of-the-mill PC, laptop, or cellphone that can quantify information as a one or a zero, quantum computers can do it with a one, a zero, or a simultaneous overlap (“superposition” in physics parlance) of the two. That extra-information state makes it possible to do more calculations, exponentially faster, using much less energy—and that changes everything.
This won’t be the last time you’ll be hearing about the subject. Quantum computing is almost certain to upend fields from the discovery of novel drugs to improving cybersecurity to the creation of human-like robots to blurring the line between virtual and reality. Essentially, almost everything we see, touch, and feel, and what we know about the world.
Currently, the field exists in that strange intermediate place between science fiction and reality: far more than simply an idea on a page, but far less than commercially viable. Right now, the inherent difficulty of building quantum computers makes them best suited to running large-scale computer modelling rather than the next level of Candy Crush. Think Monte Carlo options-trading simulations (American megabank J.P. Morgan is looking into quantum computing); molecular modelling of novel proteins (as Canadian biotech firm ProteinQure is doing in a search for an Alzheimer’s cure); high-resolution weather forecasts (U.S. startup Rigetti Computing is developing these); identifying new chemical compounds for long-range car batteries (Volkswagen and Daimler are on the case).
But researchers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are getting involved—along with major universities, R&D organizations, and national governments. The big names you already know: Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Alibaba, Intel, Nvidia, and others are allocating millions of their R&D budgets to the field. Even IBM, the company that sold the first commercial computer back in 1952, currently has the largest number of operational quantum computers in the world. For a civilization increasingly built on ones and zeroes, such investments may well usher in a golden age of technological progress—a quantum leap that is neither solely literal, nor solely figurative, but rather a strange overlap of the two.