Quantum Computers Are the Future


By Paul RosenzweigThe George Washington University Law School

The entire structure of the Internet, and thus all of its power as well as the dangers associated with popular consumer technologies, to social media, and state surveillance capabilities are tied to the technology that undergirds it—the silicon chip. Before quantum computers, the integrated chip, or semiconductor, at the heart of every computer was the physical mechanism that created the 1s and 0s of binary code.

3D render of a quantum computer with a black background
Quantum computers will change our relationship with binary codes. (Image: Bartlomiej K. Wroblewski/Shutterstock)

Exciting Potentials of Machine Learning

The future of machine learning—or what some now call deep learning—really lies just ahead of us. Facebook has a system known as deep face that is capable of correctly identifying a face 97% of the time. That’s a performance that is both unexpectedly good and—candidly—probably better than most human capabilities.

So what happens now? What are the right rules to apply when computing power outstrips our current imagination? Or when the human control element is no longer part of the equation? What do we think of robot surveillance systems that independently choose their own targeting?

And, of course, we can also ask an even more speculative question: What if these independent machine agents are capable of taking action based on what they observe—say detaining humans or even disabling them? We need to think about the resulting social perils and opportunities of quantum computing and artificial intelligence in the context of civil liberties and state security in autocracies and democracies alike.

These are revolutionary possibilities. But like our predecessors from the Bronze Age to the Age of Quartz, it is also our responsibility to think about the future for ourselves and for those who come after us. It is not unlike thinking, what if we had something that went faster than the horse and buggy? Without knowing precisely what that something might be, you can imagine still how great a paradigm shift it could be, even if you don’t know precisely what it’s actually going to be.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and YouWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Quantum Computer

We might—just might—today be standing on the threshold of such a change. Physicists have developed the concept of a quantum computer—that is, a computer whose operations are based on theories of quantum physics—in the same way, that our current crop of computers is based on the operation of classical Newtonian physics laws. The physicists whose theoretical work is at the heart of this potential revolution won a Nobel prize for their breakthrough.

3D rendering of a futuristic circuit board
When qubits entangle with each other, they’re able to process many times more information than a set of classical computers combined. (Image: archy13/Shutterstock)

In quantum physics, it is possible for a particle to be in two places simultaneously and to be entangled with other particles and affect their activity instantaneously even when the particles are far apart. The latter is what Einstein called spooky action at a distance. The transformation that would come from the development of a quantum computer is stunning.

In a classic computer—the one you use—each and every bit of data can either be a 1 or a 0. Every concept we communicate today, every word, every picture is just a string of these 1s and 0s. In a quantum computer, the qubit—that’s short for quantum bit—can be a 1, or a 0, or both a 1 and a 0 at the same time. 

And, when qubits are entangled with each other, they can—in theory—share information instantaneously; in effect, enabling all the entangled qubits to work on a single problem simultaneously, like some massive set of connected classical computers.

Learn more about human-computer interface.

Quantum Power Unleashed

If ever created, these quantum computers would make the power of contemporary computers look puny by comparison. Much as the car, or the airplane, or the spaceship leaves the horse and buggy behind.

Because of the indefinite nature of a qubit’s state—with all the 1s and 0s capable of being both on and off at the same time—a 2-qubit system can compute 4 values at once; a 3-qubit system, 8 values; a 4-qubit system, 16; and so on. This kind of computing power can have immense benefits. 

3D illustration of embossed binary code
The power of quantum computers can make them much more efficient than computers run with binary codes. (Image: ktsdesign/Shutterstock).

Increases in cyber speed powered much of the technological revolution that we’ve experienced in recent decades. Quantum computers, if they’re ever successfully built, means that computers might be smaller, faster, and possibly even cheaper in the long run—meaning that you can actually imagine a day when your computer is a small appliance you wear as a pinky ring.

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Dangers of Too Much Computing Power

On the other hand, vast computing power brings with it some obvious dangers. Current encryption programs, for example, are based on large prime number multiplication, and they’re amazingly robust and difficult to break.

But theoretical physicists have shown that, for a quantum computer, the factoring of a large number into its prime number factors and the breaking of prime number encryption codes would be trivial. Not long ago, a quantum computer successfully factored the number 15, suggesting that the theoretical capacity to break prime number encryption might eventually become reality.

So, although we’re just at the beginning, such developments are not merely theoretical. At Oxford and at Yale, theoreticians have built 4 and 8 qubit large computing chips. When they get up to roughly 50 qubits, the computing power will match that of a contemporary laptop.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs in Singapore and Canada are working on the same question. And Google has been exploring quantum computing for years. When will a large quantum computer be built? Possibly never. But, if one is produced, well…

Common Questions about Quantum Computers and the Future

Q: How is a quantum computer different from existing ones?

Basically, in a classical computer, the bits are either 1 or 0. Everything else is based on this binary language. But in a quantum computer, the qubits could be 1, 0, or 1 and 0 simultaneously.

Q: What are the advantages of a quantum computer compared to a classical one?

Quantum computers can compute more data at once while also being smaller than classical computers. They might even be cheaper in the long run.

Q: What could be a potential danger in machine learning?

With the growing potential of machine learning, it appears quantum computers might one day be able to crack without prime number encryption codes that are impossibly hard to crack at present.

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