Quantum computing is officially one of the technologies of 2024. But when it's not hacking passwords, quantum is set to have an explosive impact on your day-to-day life. From the food you eat to the products you buy, quantum will make them cheaper and better than ever before.
Space isn’t cold enough. D-Wave Quantum Systems chill their quantum computers to ‘absolute zero’, -273 degrees Celsius (-460°F). Even the farthest reaches of the universe rarely reach that level.
The Canadian company claims to be the first to sell computers that ‘exploit quantum effects’. With customers including Google and NASA, quantum applications are now in the hands of governments, universities, and businesses.
A decade ago it was a different story. D-Wave was in the wilderness of the quantum world, shunned by sceptics who thought their approach wouldn’t work. Their journey echoes the trajectory of OpenAI, a company dismissed as “insane” before emerging as the leader in artificial intelligence.
Similarly, D-Wave has become one of the world’s leading quantum developers. Advancements like these have prompted the World Economic Forum to officially declare quantum computing a potential threat to society for 2024, recognising how quantum computers which can hack even the most advanced encryption techniques could cause a “cybersecurity armageddon”.
Experiments by Google and NASA engineers explain why. In their research, the D-Wave 2X computer saw processing speeds 100 million times faster than that of an average computer. Calculations that would take a computer 10,000 years can be completed in seconds. And that was back in 2015. D-Wave’s latest version is 20 times faster.
While modern computers use bits, represented as a 1 or a 0, quantum computers use quantum bits, or ‘qubits’. Both bits and qubits use electrons – subatomic particles smaller than atoms – but qubits also take advantage of the quantum properties those electrons have. One of these properties is superposition, which allows a qubit to represent a 1 and a 0 at the same time, dramatically accelerating the speed at which they run calculations.
What does this mean for the world? A cure for cancer? Driverless cars for all? Solutions to climate change and tools for space exploration are just a few of the radical goals on the quantum 'to-do’ list. Pharmaceuticals, agriculture, logistics, manufacturing, and finance are all in the crosshairs.
On average, it takes 15 years to bring a new drug to market. Using quantum computing, which can better analyse chemistry at the molecular level, could make lengthy clinical trials a thing of the past, eliminating side effects and curing diseases thought to be incurable. French drugmaker Sanofi, for example, invested $140m in a 2023 quantum drug discovery programme targeting cancers that are hard to treat with traditional drugs.
Quantum trials in agriculture are bearing fruit too. Supercharged quantum computing will accelerate automation, optimise data processing, and power the AI analyses that increase yields and predict supply and demand. From global companies like Bayer to startups like AgrarIA, quantum technology is eyeing up farming in every corner of the world.
And it’ll be quantum computing responsible for putting that food on the table too. All kinds of logistics could be optimised with quantum computing. BMW are finding new ways to save fuel and cut emissions whilst DHL and Volkswagen are using quantum to calculate quicker trucking routes. ExxonMobil plans to use quantum to evaluate more possible routing combinations for its ships than exist atoms in the entire universe.
Meanwhile, quantum computing is redefining manufacturing in the labs of Rolls Royce and Lockheed Martin. Every day, nature produces materials with astonishing properties that modern industry can only dream of manufacturing. For example, by weight, spider silk is stronger than steel. Its production generates only water as a by-product. Because spider silk is a protein made by DNA, quantum computing’s superior ability to analyse molecules might someday unlock our ability to manufacture a similar material in an equally sustainable way.
But don’t get too excited yet. Quantum may be in the labs of the world’s biggest companies, it will be years before those experiments become everyone’s day-to-day. D-Wave’s biggest computer operates 5,000 qubits, a big step up from the 128-qubit models they built in 2010, but a long way away from the 1 million qubit models needed to reliably run calculations at scale. Ensuring that all these qubits communicate without errors is another challenge.
Nonetheless, quantum computing is on track to become the puppet master of all emerging tech. Whilst AI excels at finding hidden correlations in enormous datasets, quantum will power the trillions of calculations that unlock those insights. A quantum computer might be able to hack your password, but it will also provide the horsepower that models the natural world to help us explore nano-tech, bio-tech, and the other sciences of the future. And quantum computers will be working to keep your passwords safe too.
Computationally-heavy industries, like pharma, finance, and yes, AI, will be the first adopters, but it’s only a matter of time until quantum reaches every aspect of our lives. A new computer age is beginning.
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