The Quantum Revolution: How Qubits Could Change the World
The basics of quantum computing, why it matters, and how Stuyvesant students can learn more about it.
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Imagine a computer so advanced that it can drastically reduce program runtime, simulate complex systems with unprecedented accuracy, and crack codes deemed unbreakable. Enter the quantum computer, a machine forged by the ingenuity of physicists, computer scientists, and mathematicians over the last few decades. Many corporations are now pouring money into its development, and a new generation of young researchers is eager to advance the potential of this technology. However, much of the public is still unaware of what quantum computers even are or why they matter so much.
The functionality of quantum computers depends on two modern physics principles: superposition and entanglement. Superposition is the ability of quantum systems to be in multiple states at the same time until they are measured. Whereas classical computers use bits (either 0 or 1) to represent information, a quantum computer uses qubits, which can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. This allows quantum computers to perform multiple computations simultaneously, which makes them faster than classical computers for certain algorithms.
Entanglement is a correlation between two quantum systems in which the gain of information about one immediately reveals information about the other, regardless of the distance between them. Quantum computers entangle qubits in chains, which increases their speeds. Doubling the number of qubits in such a computer increases the processing power exponentially.
Quantum computers have the potential to transform many different fields. For instance, physicists, chemists, and biologists often need to model molecular interactions. The small scale of these interactions necessitates taking account of quantum mechanical effects like superposition and entanglement. Quantum computers do this best because they inherently rely on those phenomena. Researchers are investigating quantum computing algorithms that could solve long-standing problems, such as the question of how amino acid sequences determine the 3D structure of proteins. Over the past 50 years, the advent of classical computers has radically changed society, from trivializing many calculations to enhancing communication. Quantum computers could do the same in the future, if not more. However, it is important to note that quantum computers are best suited for the simultaneous analysis of many different quantities, so classical computers will likely still be used most of the time.
As quantum computers become more advanced, some algorithms could threaten modern cybersecurity. One example is Shor’s algorithm, which was developed by mathematician Peter Shor to quickly find the prime factorizations of integers. As quantum computers continue to evolve and gain processing power, this could break current encryption systems like RSA, which rely on the difficulty of factoring the products of large prime numbers. RSA is often used to encrypt the data of emails and digital transactions, so its collapse would affect the lives and finances of countless people. Likewise, Grover’s algorithm is a quantum search algorithm that can quickly search through unsorted databases. This gives it the potential to efficiently brute-force encryptions, which is similar to guessing passwords until the correct one is found.
The major issue hindering the progress of quantum computing is decoherence, the process by which a system loses its quantum properties when it becomes too large. Thus, having too many qubits results in highly unreliable quantum computers. Decoherence has prevented quantum computers from scaling up in processing power. To build more practical quantum computers, researchers are working on error correction techniques that mitigate the effects of decoherence. Error correction remains one of the most important subfields in quantum computing.
Ultimately, quantum computing is a potential double-edged sword in the future of technology. Its ability to solve complex problems and drive innovation is undeniable, but the risks it poses to cybersecurity cannot be ignored. The average person’s personal privacy and financial stability depend on the ethical use of quantum computing. In order to make sure this technology stays in the right hands, the students of today must be educated about it so they can become the responsible researchers of tomorrow.