I am become death, the destroyer of economies
On July 16th, 1945 the world changed in a moment. In the early New Mexico morning, a spherical explosion condensed a core of enriched plutonium to supercritical size, initiating an irreversible chain-reaction that would change the world forever. With the bomb known as The Gadget and its brothers Little Boy and Fat Man, humanity had tapped into the fundamental power of the Universe.
The world had exploded into the nuclear age and there would be no turning back.
While the first time DWave flipped the switch on their processor it might have lacked the punctuation of an awesome nuclear explosion, the consequences of flipping that switch may be no less profound than that of the trinity explosion. Whether you accept that DWave has created a quantum computer or not, someone will eventually create it and the consequences are going to be deep and serious.
Humanity is tapping into the fundamental mathematical power of the Universe. We are exploding into the age of quantum computing and there will be no turning back.
Essentially, adiabatic quantum computing means that if we formulate a mathematical question in just the right way and if we can quiet the inherent noise of the world, then it is possible that the right answer can simply pop out of the Universe.
Whereas standard computers utilize strings of digital bits that are deterministically always either 1 or 0, quantum bits are simultaneously both 1 and 0 (known as superposition). While in this state of quantum flux, the answer to a given calculation is not accessible to us. In order for us here in the deterministic world to get an answer, we must collapse the quantum waveform into a deterministic one. By carefully controlling this process of quantum collapse, adiabatic quantum processors can naturally find the lowest energy state of a given string of bits.
While I barely understand how it works at all, quantum computers have a capacity to perform some mathematical calculations in a way that would take unreasonably long amounts of time for a standard computer. One example of this type of problem is the factoring of very large prime numbers. Unfortunately, the inherent difficulty in factoring long prime numbers is also the property that we use for public-key encryption of our internet traffic. Browsing, emails, online banking – all of these things rely on public key encryption that is essentially made obsolete by quantum computers.
In 50 years we will look back at our current time as the age of pre-quantum computing. A world where we dove headlong into digitization right up until we ran smack into quantum computation. Everything from our telecommunications systems, to the command and control of infrastructure, to banking and economic systems have all migrated to using the internet for communications. All of these systems rely on the computational friction to obfuscate private data.
Quantum computers get around this computational friction, and the implications are profound for our modern digital economy.
Thinking about Bitcoin provides a perfect example of the disruptive effects of quantum computing. Bitcoin is a type of crypto-currency (read cryptographic currency) that relies on this computational friction to allow the secure transfer of answers to difficult math problems as a form of currency in and of itself. As opposed to standard computing, a quantum computer circumvents the computational friction that secures Bitcoin as a currency. In this way, you could feasible use a quantum computer to calculate someone else’s “answers” and steal their Bitcoins.
Bitcoin is the currency that I like to like, and I am thrilled at the idea of a digital currency free of the government hand but within its current form I don’t see any way that your Bitcoin wallet can survive in the age of quantum computing. Even more scary though, while Bitcoin might provide the simplest example of how the coming of the quantum computer will break economic systems, it is far from the only one.
Now, here is where it gets really interesting. In our age of digitization, every currency is essentially a cryptocurrency. That is to say, all modern banking relies on cryptography to maintain its integrity. While you might still be able to take cash out of the bank and hold it in your hand, the vast majority of transactions are simply the secure exchange of 1’s and 0’s. Using a quantum computer of sufficient power, a nefarious actor could theoretically completely circumvent any modern banking systems; easily moving, creating or destroying wealth anywhere which it is digital.
This potential breakdown of digital security could lead to a number of disastrous outcomes. For instance, a collective loss of faith in the security of our banking institutions could lead to a downward spiral in the value and importance of currency generally. More likely than this however, I would guess that some form of quantum encryption will emerge to replace current cryptographic techniques. A side-product of this, is that it would serve to re-centralize the power of cryptography to those who can afford to use expensive quantum technology, namely governments and large corporations (at least for the forseeable future).
The power of quantum computing also extends far beyond the world of cryptography. In addition to being able to do things like factoring extremely large numbers, quantum computers can also find the optimal answer to questions of reality that have as of yet been inaccessible to standard computation.
The classic example of this is the travelling salesman problem, wherein a computer tries to find the shortest route for a salesman to take between multiple locations. In turns out that such a problem is very hard for a standard computer to figure out, but for a quantum computer which seeks the lowest energy solution, it is much easier. Similarly, a quantum computer can also be applied to a host of optimization problems wherein computational friction has thusfar hindered our understanding:
- Molecular Processes – Protein folding is a complex process driven by probabilistic processes that are highly difficult for standard computers to model. It is thought that quantum computers will be able to model this much more readily. Similarly, quantum computing might be brought to bear in understanding the interactions of the millions of molecules found in even simple cells, leading to breakthroughs in the understanding of biology.
- Computational understanding – Processing the meaning of an image or text is a highly difficult problem for standard computers. Because understanding is also driven by probabilistic effects, it is thought that quantum computers will also be able to be used to better “understand” what it reads or sees.
- Human behaviour – If human behaviour is also driven by probabilistic processes, then a quantum computer could potentially aid in distilling these phenomena as well. Quantum computers could aid an organization in figuring out the best way to sell a particular item to a person or group, or maybe a particular political philosophy.
- Understanding of the Nature of Reality – As we start to interact more with quantum computers, in a way we will be touching the mathematical fabric of the universe. Through this we may finally find answers for some fundamental questions such as the nature of consciousness, or that of reality itself.
These are but a few examples of the types of problems that may fall to the might of quantum computing, but as with all technological revolutions it will likely be the unforeseen consequences of quantum computation that will have the biggest impact on the world. There is at least one thing that is without doubt for me, the quantum computer will bring untold power to bear for those that control it, one that will create new economies and destroy old ones.
Just as the explosive entrance of the nuclear bomb onto the world’s stage represented a paradigm shift for warfare, the emergence of quantum computing represents a revolutionary paradigm shift for computation. In the same way that the last half of the 20th century was a story of who had the bomb, the first half of the 21st century may turn out to be about who has the quantum computer.
Stay tuned, this is going to get interesting.