Solving Interesting Problems

There is a new kind of computer being developed these days that is unlike any computer ever built. All modern computers are just bigger, faster and, smaller variations of the Von Neuman vacuum tube behemoths of the late 1940s. But the new kid on the block is a “Quantum Computer” that runs near absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature and whose small number of bits can each represent many possible states at the same time. A random number problem solved by IBM’s largest conventional supercomputer in sixty hours was solved by Google’s twelve-bit quantum computer in three minutes!

The conventional computers we have all grown used to in our cell phones, laptops, refrigerators, cars and toasters, have all followed “Moore’s Law” where the speed and memory size doubles about every eighteen months. This has been proceeding apace since the 1970s. But quantum computers take us clear off the curve of Moore’s Law yielding speed and memory improvements by a million or more. What could we do with such a computational monster?

In materials science, we could create improved batteries.  Doubling the energy density of batteries would not only give us flashlights and cell phones that last longer between charges but would offer practical off-grid solar energy installations worldwide. We could also develop novel structural materials to replace concrete and steel with lighter weight, recyclable and durable materials. Pharmaceutical development including vaccines would not only be sped up, but novel approaches to disease management and cancer could be simulated and deployed faster than ever. Remote surgical robots could perform operations guided by quantum computers. Diagnosis and treatment of genetic and neurological disease will become possible.

Such fantastic cures and technologies seem like the dreams of science-fiction writers today, but they will become reality in the next human generation. The acceleration of change is one aspect of technology that is a challenge today and will become more challenging in the future. In spite of all this, even when a future quantum computer is a million times faster than today’s biggest super-computer, it will still only have the intelligence of your average house cat.

Leave a Reply