SciBlogs is running guest posts from some of the Eureka! Sir Paul Callaghan Awards 2014 finalists. In this guest post, Jack Wynne, from St. Patrick’s College Wellington explores the potential of quantum computing .
In my presentation at the Sir Paul Callahan Eureka symposium I will discuss how advanced research into quantum mechanics could revolutionise New Zealand turning it into a technological powerhouse. I will discuss one of the main principles of quantum mechanics, superposition, which is harnessed in the process of building quantum computers. I will then explain how quantum computing can be used to turn New Zealand into a modern and technologically advanced country.
Quantum mechanics is very different from classical physics that we observe around us. Classical physics governs the logical world that we experience every day. This includes but is not limited to tennis balls flying through the air, cars driving on the road and the orbit of the planets. In classical physics it is possible to know both the position as well as the momentum of an object. Quantum mechanics governs a much weirder world. In quantum mechanics the more accurately the position of an object is known the less accurately momentum is known about it and vice versa. This is called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
The principle of quantum mechanics that I will explain was made famous by Erwin Schrodinger in the 1935 analogy of Schrodinger’s cat. In this analogy Schrodinger’s cat is placed in a box with a vial of poison gas. The vial has a random chance of breaking, killing the cat. When the lid of the box is on we don’t know the state of the cat, the cat could be dead or alive. When something is in multiple states at the same time it is called superposition. Under superposition when the lid is on the box the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. It is only by opening the box, observing the cat and breaking the superposition that we discover if the cat is dead or alive.
The principle of superposition is being used to build quantum computers. Existing computers contain transistors that can be in the on or off position. This is the base architecture of all computers namely 0’s and 1’s which are called bits. If you apply superposition to a bit you get a qubit. A qubit can be a 0, a 1 or a bit of both. A way to think about this is to imagine that you are at the centre of the earth. If you are a bit from an existing computer you can only point to the North Pole, a 0, or to the South Pole, a 1. If you were a qubit you could point anywhere in the world and make a mixture of a 0 and a 1. Due to the ability to be 0’s and 1’s qubits can check multiple solutions at the same time which makes them significantly more powerful than regular bits. Just how powerful quantum computers are is shown in their ability to solve incredibly complex problems with multiple variables. For example problems which would take an existing computer more the 14 billion years, the lifetime of the universe, to solve can be solved on a quantum computer in about 100 seconds. This is due to the fact that adding one more qubit to a chip doubles the amount of its processing ability. This means that 30 qubits can do the same number of jobs as the top of the line Intel Core i7 processer which has 1.4 billion transistors.
An example of how quantum computers can positively assist our country’s future is the potential impact on weather forecasting and how that could be used to increase crop production. The weather is an incredibly difficult thing to predict on existing computers as there are so many variables. With a quantum computer, that due to superposition is very good at handling large amounts of variables, you could accurately predict the weather. This would have a significant impact on crop production.
Quantum computing will also have a massive effect in the health sector. The raw computational power of a quantum computer will allow new medicines to be analysed faster to see which diseases, viruses and infections they can combat. Quantum computers can also be used to tailor medicine for an individual, based on their genetic code and other biometric analysis. Quantum computing will also allow us to cure the common cold, which due to having many varieties and fast evolution has never been cured before. Only a quantum computer could analyse specimens fast enough and tell chemists what medicines will combat it.
Quantum computing will also allow for the discovery of new materials. Using the power of quantum computing to model and analyse atoms and molecules at the atomic and subatomic levels it is predicted that room temperature superconductors would become a reality. This allows for hundreds of new inventions and discoveries to be made.
All of the great revolutions of the modern world have been due to a new understanding in science. The understanding of the laws that govern motion powered the industrial revolution, creating mass production. The first steps into quantum mechanics powered the first technological revolution leading to the development of computers and smart devices. Now there is about to be a new quantum revolution and there is a chance for New Zealand to become a world leader in that technology. With quantum mechanics we could build a better future and a better New Zealand.
Short bio: My name is Jack Wynne, and I am a year 13 student at St. Patrick’s College Wellington. Next year I am going to Otago University to study commerce and science, majoring in finance and information science. I have a deep interest in science, technology and business, especially where all three come together to make the world a better place.