How will quantum computing impact the world?

A friend of mine recently showed me an essay series on quantum computers. These essays are fantastically well written and original, and I highly encourage anybody with the slightest interest in the topic to check them out. They are also interesting to read from a pedagogical perspective, as experiments in a new style of teaching (self-described as an “experimental mnemonic medium”).

There’s one particular part of the post which articulated the potential impact of quantum computing better than I’ve seen it articulated before. Reading it has made me update some of my opinions about the way that quantum computers will change the world, and so I want to post that section here with full credit to the original authors Michael Nielsen and Andy Matuschak. Seriously, go to the original post and read the whole thing! You won’t regret it.

No, really, what are quantum computers good for?

It’s comforting that we can always simulate a classical circuit – it means quantum computers aren’t slower than classical computers – but doesn’t answer the question of the last section: what problems are quantum computers good for? Can we find shortcuts that make them systematically faster than classical computers? It turns out there’s no general way known to do that. But there are some interesting classes of computation where quantum computers outperform classical.

Over the long term, I believe the most important use of quantum computers will be simulating other quantum systems. That may sound esoteric – why would anyone apart from a quantum physicist care about simulating quantum systems? But everybody in the future will (or, at least, will care about the consequences). The world is made up of quantum systems. Pharmaceutical companies employ thousands of chemists who synthesize molecules and characterize their properties. This is currently a very slow and painstaking process. In an ideal world they’d get the same information thousands or millions of times faster, by doing highly accurate computer simulations. And they’d get much more useful information, answering questions chemists can’t possibly hope to answer today. Unfortunately, classical computers are terrible at simulating quantum systems.

The reason classical computers are bad at simulating quantum systems isn’t difficult to understand. Suppose we have a molecule containing n atoms – for a small molecule, n may be 1, for a complex molecule it may be hundreds or thousands or even more. And suppose we think of each atom as a qubit (not true, but go with it): to describe the system we’d need 2^n different amplitudes, one amplitude for each bit computational basis state, e.g., |010011.

Of course, atoms aren’t qubits. They’re more complicated, and we need more amplitudes to describe them. Without getting into details, the rough scaling for an natom molecule is that we need k^n amplitudes, where . The value of k depends upon context – which aspects of the atom’s behavior are important. For generic quantum simulations k may be in the hundreds or more.

That’s a lot of amplitudes! Even for comparatively simple atoms and small values of n, it means the number of amplitudes will be in the trillions. And it rises very rapidly, doubling or more for each extra atom. If , then even natoms will require 100 million trillion amplitudes. That’s a lot of amplitudes for a pretty simple molecule.

The result is that simulating such systems is incredibly hard. Just storing the amplitudes requires mindboggling amounts of computer memory. Simulating how they change in time is even more challenging, involving immensely complicated updates to all the amplitudes.

Physicists and chemists have found some clever tricks for simplifying the situation. But even with those tricks simulating quantum systems on classical computers seems to be impractical, except for tiny molecules, or in special situations. The reason most educated people today don’t know simulating quantum systems is important is because classical computers are so bad at it that it’s never been practical to do. We’ve been living too early in history to understand how incredibly important quantum simulation really is.

That’s going to change over the coming century. Many of these problems will become vastly easier when we have scalable quantum computers, since quantum computers turn out to be fantastically well suited to simulating quantum systems. Instead of each extra simulated atom requiring a doubling (or more) in classical computer memory, a quantum computer will need just a small (and constant) number of extra qubits. One way of thinking of this is as a loose quantum corollary to Moore’s law:

The quantum corollary to Moore’s law: Assuming both quantum and classical computers double in capacity every few years, the size of the quantum system we can simulate scales linearly with time on the best available classical computers, and exponentially with time on the best available quantum computers.

In the long run, quantum computers will win, and win easily.

The punchline is that it’s reasonable to suspect that if we could simulate quantum systems easily, we could greatly speed up drug discovery, and the discovery of other new types of materials.

I will risk the ire of my (understandably) hype-averse colleagues and say bluntly what I believe the likely impact of quantum simulation will be: there’s at least a 50 percent chance quantum simulation will result in one or more multi-trillion dollar industries. And there’s at least a 30 percent chance it will completely change human civilization. The catch: I don’t mean in 5 years, or 10 years, or even 20 years. I’m talking more over 100 years. And I could be wrong.

What makes me suspect this may be so important?

For most of history we humans understood almost nothing about what matter is. That’s changed over the past century or so, as we’ve built an amazingly detailed understanding of matter. But while that understanding has grown, our ability to control matter has lagged. Essentially, we’ve relied on what nature accidentally provided for us. We’ve gotten somewhat better at doing things like synthesizing new chemical elements and new molecules, but our control is still very primitive.

We’re now in the early days of a transition where we go from having almost no control of matter to having almost complete control of matter. Matter will become programmable; it will be designable. This will be as big a transition in our understanding of matter as the move from mechanical computing devices to modern computers was for computing. What qualitatively new forms of matter will we create? I don’t know, but the ability to use quantum computers to simulate quantum systems will be an essential part of this burgeoning design science.

Quantum computing for the very curious
(Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen)