The future on a chip

Back to the quantum frontier we go.

If that makes no sense to you it means you missed yesterday’s piece and should read it now before reading on.

I left off yesterday by quoting an exchange between resident tech experts Sam Volkering and Eoin Treacy, in which the spectre of a “quantum arms race” loomed large.

The idea being that Google believes it has made a breakthrough on the road to quantum computing. I’m trying to figure out how that could play out.

A world in which only one entity has quantum computers would look a lot like a world with only one nuclear superpower. The technology is that powerful. You’d derive that much of an advantage. Not least because you’d be able to hack anything non quantum with ease – including nuclear codes.

Which is quite a first-mover advantage. The objection I have to it is: why would anyone announce the fact that they’ve made a breakthrough on that front? Would it make sense for Google to paint a bullseye on its back by establishing itself as a frontrunner – when winning the race would lead to such supreme power? 

I’ll park that question for a second, because I don’t know the answer.

While I chew that one over, let’s look at what quantum computers could actually do.

As I said yesterday, quantum computers are fast. And powerful. But not necessarily in the same way a modern laptop is faster than an older iteration. But the first milestone a quantum computer has to pass involves – in a sense – a head-to-head victory against existing technology.

Remember this term: quantum supremacy. It’s a major milestone/challenge to be overcome by quantum computing. Quite simply it involves a quantum computer solving a problem the world’s most powerful conventional supercomputer cannot.

A race. An arm wrestle. A head to head. Call it what you want. It’s the point at which we could confidently say a quantum computer has surpassed the best a “regular” supercomputer can do.

In the “milestones for incredible new technology to reach” stakes, it’s up there with Alan Turing’s Imitation Game (a challenge artificial intelligence must overcome in order to be considered truly “human-like”).  

And we haven’t reached it yet. But as I showed you yesterday, we may well be getting closer. I could be writing to you about quantum supremacy again before too long. Oh, go on then. It’s wild prediction time. I think we’re going to get there soon. Before the year is out. Let’s see if I’m right. (Your predictions to

Assuming we reach quantum supremacy soon, what practical uses could quantum computing have? It’s all very well being faster than a supercomputer. But that’s an abstraction. Let’s get real.

Well, according to a Bloomberg piece quantum computing has several possibilities right away:

Tasks that seem more in reach are creating more efficient chemical catalysts, optimizing the risk and return of financial portfolios, creating less data-hungry machine learning models, improving supply chains and helping discover new drugs.

I’ll add my own schema to understanding what’s possible with quantum computers.

Think back to the metaphor I used yesterday. Quantum computer “bits” are like coins spinning in the air. They are effectively both heads and tails.

That state of uncertainty – or a state of multiple possible outcomes – is how quantum computers derive their power. By keeping many possible future outcomes “spinning”, quantum computers can explore many, many different combinations. Far more than a conventional non-quantum computer.

That could mean anything. But I’ll boil it down to two things.

  1. New combinations of “things” – like chemicals, drugs or materials.
  2. New combinations of “outcomes” – like futures, realities.

To take “things” first – because things are real, and therefore easier to grasp than something slippery like an outcome. The applications here are obvious. Predictive models that allow us to understand and anticipate new combinations of chemicals would clearly help in the generation of new drugs, materials, industrial processes and so on.

Imagine: load every known element, chemical, industrial process and existing known outcome into a quantum computer. Now: “spin” the trillions of potential new combinations. Even just to understand what’s worth looking at, that’s valuable. And there’s a kind of creativity to that computerised combination of what’s known… to create something new and unknown. At least for now.

Read the previous paragraph back and you’ll realise I’m no computer expert. But I think the principle is true. It’s the promise of quantum computing. New drugs, new materials, new combinations we’d perhaps never have looked at without the guiding nudge of a machine.

That’s things. What about outcomes?

That’s another dimension altogether. Literally, if you take at face value the idea that quantum computers can literally unlock alternative realities.

For instance, the Bloomberg piece I just referenced noted “improving risk and reward on financial portfolios” as a use of quantum computing. What is that, but analysing different versions of the future and then making an investment decision based on their likeliness?

The process is the same as with things, but far more tricky. You combine every known input and “spin” them – explore future relationships and combinations.

That part worries me. Case in point: the 2008 financial crisis. Would a quantum computer have allowed more people to foresee and predict it?

How about the rise of cryptocurrencies and subsequent 20,000% odd gains we saw in 2017? Would a computer have seen that outcome on the horizon?

I doubt it.

I don’t think it’s a case of computing power, given the fact that plenty of good old-fashioned human bipeds predicted both those events… and were largely ignored. Worse: they were dismissed as fools!

How about Donald Trump? Would a computer program in 2008 have been able to predict the most likely person to succeed Barack Obama would be the former host of The Apprentice?

How seriously would a person have taken the computer making that prediction? Answer: not very. Even in 2016, when Trump was one of just two people in the US with a real shot of winning… most people dismissed the idea as too crazy.

Computer processing power wouldn’t have stopped that, because human nature would still intervene to block the signal. How much processing power is required to overcome human hubris and arrogance?

How powerful a computer do you need to make people listen to it?

More on that next time. And in the meantime: write to me at


Nick O’Connor
Publisher, Southbank Investment Research

Category: Technology

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