There is a revolution coming that is as big as it is tiny. While advances in artificial intelligence have dominated headlines recently, quantum computing could change our lives in ways that are even more far-reaching. VICE News and HSBC have teamed up to explore a series of questions that underpin internationalism as well as the benefits and opportunities from greater global connection and collaboration. In this piece, we explore how tiny subatomic particles are set to unleash a huge number of possibilities. Can we do great things by thinking smaller? Read on to find out.
What Is Quantum Computing?
The device that you are currently reading this on remains remarkably unchanged from the proto-computers developed in the 20th century. While they may have gotten smaller and faster, the way in which information is processed is still fundamentally the same. Quantum computing, however, is set to upend this status quo and could be as transformational to the global economy as the Internet, TV, and telephone.
So what makes it so revolutionary? First, you need to understand how that device you are reading this on works. Your computer uses the binary system, which is a coding language that helps it to understand the world around us. Every single piece of data - such as images or text - that gets entered, or produced by, a computer is translated into unique codes made up of 0s and 1s. For example, the word ‘cat’ would translate to 01000011 0100001 01010100 in binary.
Quantum computing is tearing up this system and ushering in a new type of processing using ideas from subatomic physics. The units of information inside a quantum computer – known as qubits – can be a zero or one at the same time. In fact, they can be in every possible state between zero and one too. Imagine a coin being flipped in the air. It will land either up or down, but while it is in the air, it is in every possible position. In quantum computing, this is known as ‘superposition’ and it opens up vast new processing possibilities and that means these machines can perform computations in an exponentially faster way.
If that seems complicated, bear in mind that American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics”.
What Can Quantum Computers Do?
If this all sounds a bit Sci-Fi, you are not alone. For a long time, experts believed that we would never be able to get the qubits into the perfect state that we needed them to be in to make useful quantum computers. However, recent breakthroughs are finding ways to correct these issues enough to make them more reliable and accurate. Small scale quantum computers are already in operation but even the largest contains just 433 qubits. To put that into perspective, it is believed that a million qubits is required to realize the technology’s full potential.
One of the most exciting uses of quantum computing is the part that they could play optimizing current processes to reduce carbon emissions. A Japanese software company and real estate developer recently used quantum computing to develop sustainable cities via optimized waste management and lower CO2 emissions. The route for collecting waste was reduced from 2,300 km to 1,000 km, and as a result, CO2 emissions were cut by 57%.
As quantum computers become more mainstream, they could also be used to run energy grids more efficiently. Today, research has already begun into designing new catalysts to make industrial processes less energy intensive or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Speeding Up Business
It could also have a major impact on businesses, helping them to run in a more efficient manner or streamline processes to improve profitability. It is thought that there is huge potential for the automotive industry, from supply chain management to the development of new high capacity batteries for electric vehicles.
The move to hyper fast computers would likely have a large impact on the financial services sector too. The ability to crunch such large volumes of data would likely mean that banks would be able to create ever more accurate market and scenario calculations. HSBC has already begun investigating the potential of applying quantum technologies to real world problems across the bank. Joining forces with leading technology providers and research labs, HSBC is looking into areas such as pricing and collateral optimization.
In the future, it is hoped that quantum computers could massively speed up the discovery of vital new treatments and vaccines. Quantum computers could also be used to help with early intervention in cancer patients by helping to predict when otherwise healthy cells might develop into malignant tumors.
A New Internet?
As with artificial intelligence, there are growing concerns about the potential downsides to the mind-boggling power set to be unleashed. A big concern is that quantum computers will eventually be able to crack practically all of the current encryption protocols that we have. A full-scale quantum computer could do in a day what would take a conventional computer millions of years to decipher. With cryptographic keys protecting some of our most important online communication services - think group chats, emails, and even your crypto account - it has the power to break the Internet as we know it.
The flip side of this, of course, is that quantum communication could protect data in a far more secure way than we do today, making it near impossible for hackers to operate. Quantum communication could ultimately herald a new era in cybersecurity and transform the financial services industry. This could lead to even greater levels of security for payments and transactions. HSBC is already looking at how quantum physics can be used to create ultra secure encryption systems using technology called Quantum Key Distribution.
What Stage Are We At Now?
While already being put to good use, quantum computing is still in its early days. However, the point in history where quantum computers overtake existing supercomputers is known as quantum supremacy. You might even hear the terms Y2Q or Q-Day thrown around. We are still some way off that today, however, with experts estimating it could be another 20-40 years until we have a machine with the necessary million qubits.
What is not in doubt, however, is the attention and funding the area is already receiving. Quantum computing is seeing big funding pledges by governments and industry alike. Some $24 B has been earmarked by governments around the world and the sector received over $1 B of venture capital investment in 2021.9 It is estimated that, by 2035, the four sectors most likely to be impacted by the development of quantum computing - automotive, chemicals, financial services, and life sciences - could stand to gain $1.3 T in value.
It is unsurprising then that the race is on for quantum supremacy by governments and private industry around the world. Large international projects are helping to bring together research and development to scale up the rate of discovery. The European Next Applications of Quantum Computing (NEASQC), of which HSBC is a key partner, is bringing together twelve European companies and research laboratories who are working on possible use cases in fields ranging from drug discovery and breast cancer detection to carbon capture and energy infrastructure risk assessments.
As the world hurtles toward Y2Q, it is likely we will hear much more about quantum computing in the years to come. Can we do great things by thinking smaller? With quantum computing, there is no question about it. But how, what, and with who? The possibilities are truly infinite!