Because it’s based on quantum mechanics, really understanding quantum computing is generally a little bit beyond the average Joe. Even the basic explanation gets complicated: while traditional, digital computers store information in binary digits, or bits, which are always in one of two defined states (0 or 1), quantum computers use subatomic superposition and entanglement to allow their quantum bits, or qubits, to be in more than one state simultaneously (0, 1, or 0 and 1).1 This basically means that a quantum computer can perform operations exponentially more complex than those that can be performed by more traditional computers.
Sounds pretty cool, right? However, there are some issues with bringing the infant technology of quantum computing to the masses. The first “commercially available quantum computer” was created by D-Wave Systems and has been purchased by organizations like Lockheed Martin, NASA, and Google. Unfortunately, the system requires some pretty extreme conditions in which to work. It has a closed cycle dilution refrigerator approximately 10 square feet in size to supercool the tiny processing chip to nearly absolute zero.2 For those of you who don’t remember your science classes, absolute zero is the temperature at which molecular movement is supposed to cease. The temperature is often referred to as 0 Kelvin and equates to -273.15˚ Celsius or -459.67˚ Fahrenheit. The D-Wave Two™ System is cooled to .02 Kelvin.3 To put that into perspective, that’s 150 times colder than interstellar space.
The other extreme conditions needed for this system to work include being shielded to 50,000 times less than Earth’s magnetic field and a “high vacuum” environment with pressure 10 billion times lower than Earth’s atmospheric pressure.3 I’m pretty sure that these extreme conditions mean that the general public, and even many companies, won’t have direct access to quantum computers any time in the near future.
Still, there’s no need to worry. Vern Brownell, CEO of D-Wave, told Derrick Harris at Gigaom that “the rest of us will probably consume our qubits as a service.”2 It sounds like D-Wave has plans to provide quantum computing via Cloud application programming interfaces (APIs). This type of availability could completely revolutionize many aspects of the computer industry. As cloud computing advances, I believe that it is likely to include quantum computing more and more as that technology also progresses. Even now, simulation of quantum computing makes up one of the fastest growing segments of the High Performance Computing (HPC) market according to marketanalysis.com.4
Moving into 2015, we should see great advances in both quantum computing and the availability of quantum computing or simulations thereof in the Cloud. Nothing pushes innovation like exciting new ideas, and this one is pretty exciting.