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CAPE TOWN – All over the world researchers are competing to develop the most powerful quantum computer - from the quantum research teams at the Universities of Maryland and Harvard constructing time crystals (an arrangement of atoms or molecules that form a regular, repeated pattern in time), to the research team at the University of New South Wales who are embedding phosphorus atoms within a silicon chip.

Last Friday I wrote about the magic of quantum computing and the possibilities of solving currently insolvable problems due to the immense computational power and speed of quantum computers by tapping directly into the distinctive properties of matter at nanoscale (e.g. superposition, entanglement and tunnelling). 

But let us look at some possible ways in which powerful quantum computers will change our world through the solving of complex problems.

Quantum computing is causing fear amongst cryptographers and online security specialists since it is making current cryptography techniques obsolete. In early 2014, the former US National Security Agency (NSA) employee, Edward Snowden, made secret documents available indicating that the NSA has embarked on a R1.12 billion research program (called "Penetrating Hard Targets") to develop a quantum computer able of breaking encryption.

Most of the current online security methods are based on the assumption that classic computers takes an extraordinary amount of effort and time to break the encrypted code, usually very large prime number factorisation (300+ integers) or discrete logarithm problems. But the much more powerful quantum computers can crack the codes much faster by using Shor’s algorithm to find its factors, leaving our computers, digital information assets, financial institutions and private information exposed.

However, it is not all doom and gloom, since considerable work has been done with regard to advanced quantum-based encryption methods such as quantum key distribution (QKD), an ultra-secure communication method using a cryptographic protocol involving components of quantum mechanics. It enables two parties to produce a shared random secret key, which can be used to encrypt and decrypt messages. Due to the unique properties of quantum mechanics, nobody except the key holder will be able to read the message, even if it is intercepted.

Another area to be changed by quantum computing is forecasting. Predicting various scenarios rely on large and complex data sets. Traditional simulation of, for example, the weather (and climate change) is constrained by the number of inputs that can be processed by classic computers. If too many factors are added, the simulation will take longer than the evolvement of the actual weather. Therefore, even with state-of-the-art computer technology, weather forecasting remains somewhat of a speculating game.

Since quantum computers can analyse all the data simultaneously and at great speed, meteorologists will have a much better idea of when to expect bad weather and will be able to alert people in time to take precaution and thus save lives and property. It is for this reason that the national weather service of the United Kingdom (or UK Met Office) has already invested in quantum computing technology to improve the forecasting. Similarly, quantum computers can be used for extensive climate modelling and understanding the global warming phenomenon.

Currently about 46 companies are actively developing self-driving cars. These include, amongst others, car-manufacturing companies like Tesla, Renault, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volvo, GM, VW, Nissan, Peugeot Citroën, Ford, technology companies like Google, CMU Navlab, Apple, Amazon, Cisco, Huawei, and service companies like Uber. 

Several of these companies are using quantum computing in their autonomous vehicle research due to the colossal amount of sensor data and wireless communication that need to be processed. Ford, for example, partnered with NASA’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and is using quantum computing to assist the autonomous car to determine the most efficient route in big cities with thousands of routes. Volkswagen entered into a partnership with Google and is using quantum computing to develop new machine learning techniques in the development of self-driving cars.
 
Quantum computing will certainly be one of the biggest drivers revolutionising the automation of driverless cars, crewless ships and pilotless planes, bringing about considerable increases in efficiency, cost, safety and environmental health.

Closely related to autonomous cars is the effect that quantum computing will have on managing increasingly complex traffic control, whether in the air or on the ground. Due to their power and speed they will concurrently consider all alternative routes and quickly come up with the optimal routes to reduce traffic congestion especially in large metros.

In aviation quantum technology assist extremely complex computer modelling as is often found in aeronautical scenarios. Optimising the routing and scheduling of aircrafts has huge commercial benefits due to potential savings in time and costs. 

Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) Lockheed Martin Quantum Computing Centre (QCC) recently upgraded their quantum computer to help solving a problem that exists within avionics: the complex, time consuming and expensive problem of Verification and Validation (V&V) or ensuring the software system being developed is doing precisely what it is intended to do.

Understandably, aircraft system software is vital to the safety of the aircraft. It is therefore among the most heavily regulated and certified software to develop and integrate. Lockheed Martin puts a great deal of effort into ensuring that aircraft systems software is correct. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning stealth fighter jet has no less than eight million lines of code. Quantum computing technology makes the debugging of millions of lines of software code exponentially faster and cost-effective. 

Airbus has also invested in quantum computing technology, mainly to speed up aircraft research. Already in 2015, Airbus Defence and Space established a quantum computing unit at its Newport, U.K. factory with the aim, amongst others, to use quantum computing for digital modelling and simulation. While it usually takes engineers years to model the process of air flowing over a wing with classic computers, a quantum computer takes only a few weeks to model every single atom of air flowing over a wing at all angles and speeds.

Currently one of the primary uses of quantum computing is optimisation due to its unique capabilities, processing power and speed. Say for instance a large airline is flying to a number of cities and want to determine the most optimal routes. It may sound simple, but the process is quite involved if a large number of cities are included. With a mere 270 destinations there are more combinations of travel than atoms in the universe. Quantum computers, however, are able to handle almost innumerable permutations and combinations, which could advance optimisation, system design and analysis enormously.

This ability to optimise, for example, is used by Airbus to determine the optimal quantity of fuel and the optimal speed at which to operate a commercial aircraft. For similar reasons, quantum computers are also powerful for optimising supply chains, air traffic control, fleet operations and deliveries.

But the actual use of embedded quantum processors inside on-board Flight Management Computers (FMC) and in driverless cars is still some years away. For the moment the quantum computer is more like a traditional mainframe type of device.

Professor Louis Fourie is deputy vice-chancellor: Knowledge & Information Technology – Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The views expressed here are his own.

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