Practical Applications for Quantum Computing
From financial markets to fertilizer, the technology could prove immensely useful
Quantum Computing has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of our daily lives. While the topic is often over-hyped, quantum computers may prove to be particularly good at solving certain types of problems. Not those related to complex calculations, necessarily, or those related to search engine functionality, or image processing. But quantum computing can drastically improve optimization and artificial intelligence, potentially disrupting a number of industries. AI is the perfect candidate for quantum computation, because it is based on the principle of learning from experience - which in turn is based on calculating the probabilities for many possible choices. Another primary application is the modelling of molecular interactions that can result in innovative products, including pharmaceutical drugs and solar cells. It can also be applied to producing the fertilizer necessary to feed the planet; while current processes for creating fertilizer are incredibly energy-intensive, research suggests quantum simulations could help chemists develop more efficient methods. Cryptography is another area where quantum computers can outperform digital computers, potentially rendering current online security methods obsolete.
Modern financial markets run on some of the most complicated systems in existence, and investors and analysts may turn to quantum computing to help make them more efficient. Weather forecasting is another potential application that could benefit both the public and private sectors. Just about any country’s economic health is directly or indirectly affected by the weather; improved forecasting would benefit food production, transportation, and many other facets of GDP. In addition, better climate models could give us more insight into future climate scenarios. In light of all of these potentially impactful applications, governments and businesses have scaled up research and development efforts. In 2018, the European Commission kicked off the ramp-up phase of its Quantum Technologies Flagship initiative, aimed at using a €1 billion budget to bring together research institutions, companies and public funding. Meanwhile the US is spending about $1.2 billion between 2019 and 2028 to make its mark on the technology, and China is building a $10 billion national laboratory for related research. However, while the development of quantum technologies is moving fast, it is still at a relatively preliminary phase.
Post-Quantum Computing Security
Quantum computers could crack current cryptography with relative ease.
The dawn of the quantum computing age brings with it many potential new risks - including those related to security. The privacy of online communication is currently protected by cryptography, which shields information as it travels around the internet. It secures everything from making online purchases to accessing work email remotely. Confidential and sensitive government and business information is highly valuable to hackers and corporate rivals, whether it relates to the R&D in a pharmaceutical business, geological surveys in the energy industry, trading data in financial services, or budgeting plans and employees’ personal data. And while blockchain and cryptocurrencies have been hailed as revolutionary means to securely store data and financial information, they were built on existing public key encryption - which may not be a match for quantum computers. In general, many of the security algorithms used to keep our information safe could be cracked relatively quickly by a quantum computer, which is able to factor large numbers more efficiently than the sort of classical computer used to build current encryption standards.
Broad adoption of quantum computing might still be far in the future, but significant progress has been made. In 2019, IBM and Google each published studies claiming their quantum computers performed a task not possible with even the strongest traditional computers (though they differed on the value of their respective results). Meanwhile government agencies and industry groups have expressed a growing sense of urgency when it comes to transitioning to a quantum-safe future. It is expected to take a considerable amount of time to develop, standardize, and deploy post-quantum cryptographic techniques. Researchers are working on new algorithms resistant to the strength of a quantum computer but also able to meet business objectives. In order to ensure that everyone’s data is safe in a quantum future, and to secure international support, it is crucial that the development of quantum-resistant cryptosystems is transparent - carried out in full view of cryptographers, governments, organizations, and the public. While it might not be an immediate threat, everyone should start considering potential implications of this impending reality.