How the Future of Quantum Computing Brings Us Closer to 'Star Trek'

Sunday, 17 September 2017 - 6:52PM
Sunday, 17 September 2017 - 6:52PM
How the Future of Quantum Computing Brings Us Closer to 'Star Trek'
Image credit: D-Wave Systems
Eric Ladizinsky's introduction at Worlds Fair Nano in NYC was prefaced with an interesting bit of trivia: Ladizinsky has watched every episode of Star Trek. In fact, his presentation started with a giant image of the U.S.S. Enterprise and the observation that in the Star Trek universe, humanity had to pass through a dark age, then an age of unbridled technology before it eventually brought about the utopia that most people associate with the series. Ladizinsky, quoting Carl Sagan, says we are still in our "technological adolescence," but that quantum computing could change the game forever.

Ladizinsky is the Co-Founder & Chief Scientist at D-Wave Systems, a company devoted to quantum computer research and development. According to him, quantum computers don't represent a new form of supercomputer—they're something completely new and different.

Computers for a Complex Reality

Ladizinsky claims that the current age is defined by "staggering complexities in all areas of human endeavor," including the complex interactions within social networks, energy networks, financial networks, and even the effects of drugs on the human body. With this incredible complexity, he says, comes the potential for "massive system failure," in which these systems spin out of control or fail completely without apparent cause. Because these scenarios are so complicated, neither human intellect nor "classical computers" (as D-Wave refers to non-quantum machines) have the ability to analyze them fully or understand the bigger picture. This is the domain of tractable vs. intractable problems.

Ladizinsky cites the example of a UPS delivery person: if a UPS driver is given a list of drop-off locations with the goal of delivering all their packages as quickly as possible with the least fuel consumption, they need to find the shortest, most efficient route. However, there is no existing algorithm that can accomplish this—in fact, this is actually a very well-known optimization challenge called the "traveling salesman problem," and despite years of intensive research, no universal algorithm has been found to solve it. Like other so-called "intractable problems," it becomes exponentially more difficult to solve the more complicated it becomes. These are the kinds of problems that the D-Wave claims to be able to tackle.


According to Ladizinsky, most revolutions (scientific and otherwise) happen in two stages: the first is the discovery and use of a new technology or resource, and the second stage is the mastery of the technology or the ability to create the resource (he uses the example of cavemen discovering fire, then learning to create and harness fire with a forge to create smelting). There was a similar progression with quantum theory and computation: after being discovered in the wake of Einstein, most efforts around quantum theory were focused on theory and mathematics, an age which Ladizinsky calls the "shut up and calculate" decades. There was little interest in or understanding of how it related to our world. The D-Wave is changing that by ushering in the second stage of the quantum revolution, where we use quantum theory to tackle problems in the real world—and reassess what's possible and impossible.

So how does quantum computing work? Ladizinsky uses a metaphor involving the Library of Congress, in which he opens up a random book, writes an 'X' on one page, then tells someone to find that book in five minutes. It seems impossible according to what we know about reality—how can one person search millions of books in the span of a few minutes? Instead, Ladizinsky asks us to imagine millions of versions of ourselves in parallel universes, all searching for the correct book. At the end of the five minutes, when the person is asked if they found the correct page, these millions of universes collapse, leaving only one version of you with only one answer: the location of the correct page.

For most people, this is where quantum computing seemingly crosses from science to sci-fi. But we're already seeing breakthroughs (possibly cataclysmic ones) on the horizon: as early as the 1990s, quantum computers were recognized for their ability to break encryption, including the previously unbreakable RSA.

The Future

Ladizinsky quoted the famous line from Paul Davies at the end of his presentation: "The nineteenth century was known as the machine age, the twentieth century will go down in history as the information age. I believe the twenty-first century will be the quantum age." However, he brought it back to the claim made at the beginning of the talk, too: that humans are still in our technological adolescence. According to Ladizinsky, we still need a deeper understanding of our world and a strong focus on ethics in order to reach the kind of society that we saw in Gene Roddenberry's original series.

In short: the tools are coming, but we still need the wisdom to use them.

Science News