Every new technology has the capacity to inspire wonder and fear. One Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, warned in the 1500s that the data overload from the printing press would be "confusing and harmful" to the mind. Similar concerns have been voiced about every conceivable advancement, from the train and car to computers and social media.
The truth is that technology transforms human experience and that always comes with tradeoffs. Information technology reduces our ability to retain information and do arithmetic in our head. Automobiles cause pollution and thousands of deaths every year. Still, I don't see many people willing to give them up.
We'll soon be entering the quantum era and the sensationalism has already begun. A recent Forbes article, for example, warns of the ability of quantum computers to crack even the most secure encryption. That sounds like a scary problem, and it is, but it's also a very solvable problem. What the quantum era needs now is not irrational fear-mongering, but understanding.
What Is a Quantum Computer?
In 1993, an unusual experiment took place at IBM Research. It was rooted in a long-standing debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. At issue was something called quantum entanglement, which Einstein called "spooky action at a distance" and thought was preposterous. He devised an experiment to prove Bohr wrong.
Yet scientists at IBM showed that not only is quantum entanglement a real phenomenon, but that it could be transformed into something far more useful than anyone dreamed. Now known as the quantum teleportation experiment, it led to a new branch of computer science called quantum information theory. It also became clear that it might be possible, in theory, to build a vastly more powerful computer based on quantum information states.
Today, that theory has become a reality. Both Google and IBM have already developed small-scale quantum computers and IBM even allows people to access its computer through the cloud. D-Wave, which uses a stripped-down form of quantum computing called quantum annealing, is currently selling a commercial version of its machine.
So clearly, the quantum era is upon us. In just a few years, we can expect these early technologies to significantly increase in scale and it won't be long before the technology is widely available. That opens up exciting new possibilities, but as with any technology, it also exposes us to new dangers.
Swallowing Complexity Whole
Quantum computing is fundamentally different because, through the use of subatomic effects like quantum entanglement and superposition, it creates a vastly larger computing space. Superpositioning means that instead of two states--one or zero--quantum bits can exist in one, zero, and both one and zero. Entanglement links those states in a manner that even today scientists don't fully understand.
It is this linking through entanglement that fundamentally changes the mathematics of computation. Three hundred regular bits results in 600 possible states (2 x 300), but 300 quantum bits, or qubits, results in 2^300 possible states. That, to put things into perspective, is more states than there are atoms in the known universe.
It is those extremely large computing spaces that make quantum computing fundamentally different than anything that has come before. In a nutshell, it will enable us to swallow complexity whole, rather than taking shortcuts like Monte Carlo simulations or genetic algorithms, and that will open up new possibilities.
For example, because of computing restraints, a lot of information gets lost when engineers train artificial intelligence algorithms, which makes them less effective. Medical science is constrained because we are not able to understand complex interactions in our bodies. We also need to better understand the complex dynamics of advanced materials to make better products. Quantum computers will allow us to handle all that complexity and do things we never could before.
The Encryption Problem
The future of quantum computers is profoundly exciting, but it also comes with a catch. Cryptologists use the limitations of our current technology to keep our information and transactions secure. Once we are able to manage massive complexity with quantum computing, our present encryption standards will be rendered ineffective.
That seems profoundly scary. As Jason Bloomberg wrote in the Forbes article mentioned above, "should the Russian government break all of our encryption before the U.S. develops countermeasures, stolen elections will seem like small potatoes. Welcome to the cyber-battlefield of the 21st century."
It is also profoundly unrealistic. The truth is that the "countermeasures" he describes already exist in the form of quantum cryptography, which has been around since the early '90s. In fact, the NSA has already begun switching to quantum safe cryptography.
There are also a number of private companies already implementing quantum safe systems. One, ID Quantique, has been setting up such systems since 2007. This year, it expects to install over 200 systems across 15 separate organizations. So, while clearly the security vulnerabilities arising from quantum computing pose a real problem, it is also a very solvable problem.
"We're seeing the industry develop, attracting new players and developing a full ecosystem around quantum cryptography," Gregoire Ribordy, CEO of ID Quantique, told me. "We also see a real learning curve, which is driving down the costs and driving up efficiency of implementations."
Every significant breakthrough takes us into unknown territory. No one really knew what would result from the mass literacy that the printing press made possible, just like we didn't know whether astronauts would bring back strange new diseases from space or what would happen when we broke the sound barrier.
Yet we did all those things and are far better for it. Technology has vastly improved our lives, making us healthier, more prosperous, and even smarter. It has also created challenges, like overpopulation, climate change, and deadly car crashes, but technology gives us the power to solve those too.
What's important is that we're forging ahead. As IBM scientist Jerry Chow told me, "I'm excited to work on quantum computers. I wasn't around to work with Alan Turing or Grace Hopper [an early computer programming pioneer], or anything like that. But now, I get to help usher in a new era, and it might even be more exciting than the first computer revolution."
That's what makes technology so thrilling. It opens up new doors. Clearly, we won't like everything we find behind all of them, but we advance even by the mere act of walking through. Because once we cross the threshold, we will inevitably find that new possibilities open up on the other side.