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Watch out for quantum computers

By Jean-Claude Elias - May 09,2019 - Last updated at May 09,2019

If you are dreaming of operating a superfast computer, a really really fast one, your dream may come true in 10 to 15 years. Superfast here refers to machines that would be hundreds or even thousands times faster than what we have today. Actually it is impossible at this point in time to even estimate how much faster the computers will be, for they will be built on quantum computing, a technology that is much different from the one used today.

Quantum physics is that part of physics that deals with subatomic dimensions. At this level the “standard” laws of physics do not apply anymore. It is a world of its own, one that has been mostly theoretical so far but where actual implementations and applications are going to be very real, quite tangible.

In a recent documentary broadcast on German-French cultural TV channel Arte, the presenter tried to explain in layman’s terms the rather esoteric notion of quantum physics. He gave an example. In traditional computing, the memory bits can take the value of zero or one, the very basis of the binary system. In quantum computers the bits (called qubits here) can have the zero and the one value, at the same time, but in various statistical states, like for example 35 per cent zero and 65 per cent one.

He wittily added “if you have perfectly understood this, then there must be something wrong with you!” In other words he was acknowledging that few people really understood the theory, and it was normal to see it as something mysterious at this point. The fact remains that actual applications are coming, and because of the subatomic size of the components that will be used, among other considerations, the speed of the machines will be incredible.

Currently computers gain a little speed every three or four years. Compared to the laptops computers made twenty years ago, today’s models are like cars to bicycles. As great as it is, this speed of change, however, will be nothing compared to what quantum computers may bring us; it will be a mind-blowing high-tech revolution, something beyond imagination.

Reading about such drastic change brings the expected questions: do we really need such computing speed? Will they be making laptops based on quantum computing or will it be a design exclusive to server computers and networks? Will price be affordable for the home users?

Only the answer to the first question is easy. The others are impossible to answer at this point.

Yes, we definitely need and can use the fastest computers that the industry can make. No machine will be fast enough. Our needs to process, treat and exchange ever larger sizes of digital contents keep growing, and networks of all kinds, wired or wireless, are expanding beyond what we thought was conceivable a mere 10 years ago. All this needs fast machines.

Quantum computers will probably be seen only as server machines at the beginning – again, something estimated to materialise in 10 to 15 years from now. When will the technology move to small offices and homes, to mobile devices? It cannot be predicted in any way. The same is true about cost. It is impossible to have even a rough estimate; even those in the industry have no idea about it.

We only can observe that computer technology is becoming relatively cheaper, if we consider the performance of the machines and all they let us do, but that at the same time we are spending a lot on high-tech. Suffice it to see the price of high end models of smartphones for example, which is in the range of JD600 to JD800 in Jordan. Who would have thought that we would spending such amounts of money on portable telephones, however smart they may be?

The only thing we can do about quantum computers now is to watch the news and perhaps prepare — mentally at least — for the big change to come.

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