The recent string of quantum computing breakthroughs has optimism in the field at an all-time high. That quantum computers are imminent seems certain, but we shouldn’t expect IBM or Apple to start shipping the first generation of personal quantum computers (PQCs maybe?) anytime soon — or ever.
Understanding what quantum computing means to the world is as much a matter of philosophical guesswork as mathematical certainty. Humans don’t have a firm grasp on how the universe works, especially when it comes to quantum mechanics. Quantum computers promise to unlock those mysteries, but predicting the future of this technology would be akin to asking Benjamin Franklin his thoughts on smartphones that support wireless charging.
The Atlantic reports Daniel Zajifman, president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, wonders “Could we create a system that would really make everything predictable?” And that’s a good place to start when it comes to quantum computers.
You can read our primer on quantum computing technology here.
The idea that quantum computers will one day replace regular computers should be taken with an understanding that it won’t be an ubiquitous takeover. They will almost certainly replace specific classical computers, even rendering many obsolete. But, for the same reason you don’t need a supercomputer inside of an adding machine, we’re not going to put quantum processors in all computers.
Quantum supremacy, the point where quantum systems perform useful functions that classical ones can’t, won’t happen overnight. And once it does, it could take years for developers and researchers to figure out how best to use this new technology. But, it’ll almost certainly happen.
When dedicated quantum systems, designed to perform a specific function, do become a part of the global technological landscape, there’s no denying they’ll have a huge impact. We’ll “know” more than we ever have as a species, and that’s going to be great for science, but could put a damper on a lot of cultural, social, and economical norms that place a premium on human guesswork.
Before Google Search came along, as those of us old enough to remember will recall, we used to argue and debate things like whether it was Christopher Walken or Al Pacino in that one movie where the guy does that thing. Now we can just Google both actors’ filmography immediately with the tap of a button.
Some people have said this has caused a lack of social discourse. Who among us hasn’t heard someone complain about how everyone is always on their phones now and nobody talks to each other anymore?
The closer we get to understanding the ground-truths of the universe, the less we’ll need pedantic debate about facts. Quantum computers promise to eliminate more of the fuzzy gray areas that exist in humanity’s understanding of the universe – basically doing for science what Google Search did for your ability to win an argument with your ridiculous uncle who thinks he knows everything, but for some stupid reason thinks Prince sang Beat It instead of Michael Jackson.
If quantum computers unravel metaphysical puzzles and solve some of science’s toughest problems, the biggest change we’ll see from them will come in the form of knowledge. Gravity, for example, has only been explained through theory at this point. A quantum system might fundamentally answer this and many more of science’s outstanding questions.
We may not like “knowing” things though, especially in areas such as climate change and vaccinations where many people feel they have a right to their opinions. But technology seldom cares whether we’re ready, and the biggest changes often go unnoticed until they’re a part of our every day lives.
Today, it’s impossible to imagine living without Google Search, but could you really pitch it as a billion dollar idea thirty or forty years ago? Do any of us even remember the first time we Googled something? Chances are you won’t notice as quantum computers get started changing the world. But the results of the technology will ripple through most fields and affect almost everything and everyone.