Tech Talk: Quantum Computing Research Makes Waves

If you’re a gadget-lover like me, you probably consider yourself fairly tech-savvy. In fact, you probably use technology your parents never dreamed of and don’t give it much thought.

However, with the rapid technological innovation in recent years comes a constant struggle to keep up with advancements in the field. One such development making waves in the tech community recently is computers that have quantum mechanic capabilities, also known as “quantum computing.”

Put simply, a quantum computer uses the properties of quantum mechanics to compute data. While still in its infancy, this new technology has inspired new theories regarding potential applications in finance, health and security industries. Some companies, notably the Canadian firm D-Wave, even claim to have a working quantum computer at their disposal.

Researchers here at UCSB are pioneering techniques to compute data that is still in its ‘quantum’ state. They are able to perform the same operations on one ‘atom’ (or q-bit) while it’s in ‘every’ state and produce results from all possible states. This means that while a classical computer, like a PC or a Mac, has to perform an enormous number of operations to get an answer, a quantum computer can do just one, at lightning speed.

So, are quantum computers the wave of the future? Will your current PC become obsolete in a couple years? Well, not quite.

According to UCSB computer science and physics professor Wim van Dam, quantum computers are still used for very specific purposes and may not be ready for the consumer market any time soon.

“You get computing power for very specific problems … for breaking certain cryptographic protocols, or to a certain degree for searching items in a database, for finding certain patterns, but it is not as if we have this new computer that can do things faster,” van Dam said.

So no quantum-speed laptops under the tree next Christmahanakwanzika, but will it still have an impact in our lives?

“I can see applications in chemistry, biochemistry and materials sciences,” van Dam said. “Places where you have very large systems [whose] behavior depends on quantum mechanics.”

While you can skim through all 2,200,000 pages a Google search will produce regarding the potential applications of quantum computers, van Dam is skeptical.

“I don’t know; people write articles claiming that you can do things … with quantum computers,” van Dam said. “I don’t think so.”

Some even speculate that quantum computers may never be realized at all. According to John Martinis, leader of the world-renowned Martinis Group of quantum computer researchers at UCSB, widely-available and fully-functioning quantum computers are still a work in progress. At this stage, researchers face major and possibly insurmountable problems such as quantum coherence.

So where does that leave companies like D-Wave, whose website claims to already have a working quantum computer?

Well, according to van Dam, “They’re not academics. Their main concern as a company at this stage is to get funding … to pay their employees.”

Both Martinis and van Dam noted that 99 percent of the scientific community is skeptical and have suggested that there are still many unanswered questions. Nonetheless, recent developments in quantum computing are noteworthy since quantum computing technology has the potential to change our worldview.

“For me, as a scientist, I don’t care about breaking crypto,” van Dam said. “I don’t particularly care about searching databases. I want to understand how the world works. People made clocks and then there was this viewpoint that … the universe is one mechanical system, that once it’s set in motion it will act deterministically … you become a different player than when you think that, you know, things aren’t certain. The world is quantum mechanical … I want to have a quantum computer for kids to play with.”

Quantum computing may be a technology that revolutionizes our understanding of the world, and it may yield currently unforeseen applications. Its importance, however, is not limited to only the benefits we may gain from this technology, but also includes what we may discover in the process.