What Is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computers are devices that use the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics to process information.
“Instead of using bits of 0s and 1s, as all of our classical computers do, quantum computers’ quantum bits — or “qubits” — can be in combinations, or superpositions, of states of 0 or 1. Superposition gives quantum computers the “potential for exponentially growing compute states,” says Bob Sutor, vice president of IBM Q Strategy & Ecosystem.
A conventional computer understands two possible states. It’s like flipping a coin: Data is either heads or tails, the famous 0s and 1s of binary code. Quantum machines can look at information in innumerable simultaneous states. Instead of a coin flip, it’s more like rolling a marble.
A quantum machine can thus store many more variables in a much smaller space and can process them faster. “All possibilities in the computer are possible, and I can process all those possibilities at once, rather than in parallel,” says Carl Williams, acting director of NIST’s Physical Measurement Laboratory.
For certain types of large, complex calculations, “quantum computers will be so powerful, you can’t even imagine the number of classical computers it would take to do comparable work,” says Thyagarajan Nandagopal, acting deputy assistant director of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate at the National Science Foundation.
What Are the Benefits of Quantum Computing in Government?
These are early days for quantum computing. As Williams points out, asking about the practical implications today is akin to asking someone in the mid-1950s what a computer might be used for in the future. They would have had a hard time envisioning the possibilities. Still, enough is known about quantum computing to begin to paint a picture.
Nandagopal points to quantum’s special strength in building and breaking encryption algorithms. This could impact security across government, and it might have special implications for the military.
If quantum helps us see deeper into biological processes, the Agriculture Department could use it to tweak photosynthesis and perhaps grow food more efficiently.
It might just make daily government processes more efficient. “A data set that takes days or months to churn through could give us answers in just a couple of seconds,” Nandagopal says. “That means you can make a sound policy decision based on that data much more quickly.”
Quantum is especially good for “optimization” problems — finding the best way to get to a desired end. That has big implications for government.