Investor Peter Thiel famously wrote, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” The quote was the introduction to the controversial tech investors’ manifesto, What Happened to the Future, in which Thiel lamented the deceleration of technological innovation and the squandering of resources to advance civilization. Rather than focusing on curing cancer or traveling to Mars, “innovation” came in the form of quirky apps to help people pass time.
Now, that assessment may not be totally fair, but a reason why Thiel’s quip became so wildly popular is because it held a lot of truths. When it comes to innovation and disruption, there’s a constant struggle in identifying what’s genuinely revolutionary from what is simply evolutionary. Evolutionary innovation provides incremental benefits, improving upon the technology that came before it.
You could argue that evolutionary events could be deemed revolutionary within their own sphere, but relatively speaking, they’re still a natural progression from one phase to the next within the context of a larger cycle. Depending on who you ask, there have only been a handful or so of actual revolutions—among them, the Industrial Revolution (water and steam power), the Technological Revolution (electric power), and the Digital Revolution (computers and web connectivity).
There’s little doubt that the Digital Revolution, which we’re currently in now, has already peaked, if it hasn’t come to a close altogether. That isn’t to say that the technology created and proliferated through this era is going away. Rather, it’s that anything new that will be introduced will be operating under the same platform as those that came before it, and therefore subject to the same limitations - namely the processing capabilities of silicon-based technology, or in other words, the limits of Moore’s Law.
We’re already seeing glimpses into what the products and concepts of the next revolution can bring: the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, virtual reality, and efficient management of big data. But these fields may never realize their full potential under the limitations of the silicon semiconductor chip. And that’s the promise of quantum computing: a whole new technological platform to propel the pace of innovation exponentially further than what's currently possible.
In laymen’s terms, quantum computing enables data to be processed in a non-binary method using quantum-mechanic principles, thus exponentially increasing the speed of computing complex problems. Essentially, it’s like switching your means of transportation from a horse-powered stage coach to a car with horse power. Technically, with enough horses, your stage coach could match the speed of a car, but it’s a lot easier to just use the car.
But the purpose of this article isn’t to go into what quantum computing is, or the particulars of superpositioning and entanglement of qubits, or a breakdown of Monte Carlo simulation methods, and what that even means. Instead, let’s focus on what quantum computing makes possible.
To date, there’s only one commercially available quantum computer on the market, and that’s from Canadian-based company called D-Wave Systems, which has licensed their quantum computers to Lockheed Martin (LMT) and USC, and Google (GOOGL), NASA and the USRA. There are several companies working on their own versions as well. But even the brightest minds in the world are just scratching the surface of what a quantum computer can do. The promise is that a quantum computer can crunch numbers to solve complex problems really, really fast. The bigger the numbers and more complex the problems, the faster it performs as compared to conventional computers. The types of problems it should be crunching, however, is still something scientists are figuring out. Suffice it to say, though, the scale is much more on par with those of flying cars than that of 140 characters.
So let’s let our imaginations run wild for a bit and take a brief stroll through the various emerging industries that could be vastly enhanced by the advent of quantum computing.
Possibilities with Big Data
According to IBM (IBM), 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is created each day and 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. But that stat is also almost five years old now, and when you think of how far technology has progressed since, as well as how much more data-driven the world is now, it’s safe to say that 2.5 quintillion bytes is probably underestimating the current rate by several magnitudes. A quintillion, by the way, is a billion billions.
But generating and collecting data is one thing. Figuring out what to do with it is a different animal entirely. Financial institutions are now tapping into alternative data sources to make smarter decisions. Marketing firms leverage consumer data like never before. Healthcare providers can provide more accurate diagnosis and track patients better. Farmers can make agriculture more efficient. Same for manufacturers. The public sector can improve their understanding of budget and resource allocations to maximize their impact. Simply put, the increased computing power to handle the ever-growing and increasingly diverse datasets being created allows organizations to work smarter.
Artificial Intelligence/Internet of Things/Robotics
But quantum computing isn’t just for large institutions. There will be direct implications for everyday people as well. In a peak smartphone world, everyone is looking for the next major consumer electronic product that shifts the paradigm. When you look at the major buzzwordy industries now, like AI-driven virtual assistants, the Internet of Things, robotics, self-driving cars, or most likely, an eventual seamless combination of them all in some form, the basic premise is that machines are going to be smart enough to operate on their own. Much of it will hinge on the progress being made in the deep learning and natural language processing (NLP) fields in which machines are actually able to learn from new data to evolve on their own.
These aren’t small markets, either. The Internet of Things industry alone is expected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2020, with artificial intelligence to hit $24.3 billion by 2025, and robotics to reach $135.4 billion by 2019.
Curing Cancer and Eliminating Disease
This may be burying the lede a little bit, but the concept of eradicating cancer and eliminating disease may actually be achieved within our lifetime. The Human Genome Project is a great example of how advanced computing may be applied in the healthcare field. Formally launched in 1990 as a global effort to modernize our understanding of human DNA, the project set out to identify the approximately 30,000 genes and sequencing of the three billion chemical base pairs in human DNA, with the goal of making the data available to the public for better understanding and analysis to solve the world’s problems, particularly in the scientific, medical and even economic arena.
Genome sequencing can help to treat and even prevent diseases and illnesses by identifying underlying mutations causing the problem. The problem however is current technology makes genome sequencing cost prohibitive for the average person, and the storage and processing power to more effectively use the data limit its effectiveness. Like a fingerprint, the human genome of each person is uniquely different. So while this means that treatment and preventative care can be tailored specifically for each person, the process of mapping their genome, then the ability to analyze it against that of their entire family tree, ethnicity, gender, or other traits is a very tall task.
By 2025, between 100 million and 2 billion human genomes could have been sequenced, according to a report published by peer-review journal PLoS Biology last year. But scientists are already running up against the limitations of what the current generation of computing can do. Quantum computing could provide a solution to this serious problem.
Interstellar Exploration and Space Colonization
The potential impact that quantum computing could have on transportation actually makes the concept of flying cars seem like novelty. There’s a reason why NASA wanted to get its hands on a quantum computer. At the risk of oversimplifying the complexities of space travel, for anyone who’s seen The Martian, the key plot of the movie boils down to NASA scientists optimizing a host of variables (fuel capacity, distance, trajectory, food supply, movie runtime, etc.) to get astronaut Mark Watney home.
Well, solving optimization problems are one of the main strengths of quantum computing. They’re not so great for everyday problems like the ones you handle on your laptop, but rather they’re built for large-scale calculations that would take too long or are impossible to be done with conventional computing. With more efficient transportation methods in place, space colonization and deeper exploration becomes more feasible. Look at what the transcontinental railroad did for the US economy in the 19th century. But it doesn’t just have to be space travel. These same challenges affect transportation industries like global shipping, commercial airlines, and self-driving cars.
Making Alternative Energy More Cost Efficient
The shift from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources like solar, wind, and other forms have gained significant momentum in the past decade. But the logistical problems for these sources still exists, namely storage and cost issues. While those areas have certainly improved over the years, added logistical efficiency and more predictive power of variables like weather patterns can certainly speed up the adoption rate of renewable energy.
How Real is Quantum Computing?
While the promises of quantum computing may sound like science fiction movies coming to life, the fact of the matter is that the pace of innovation has reached a point in which machines can be vastly smarter than humans can ever hope to be. Leveraging that intelligence can significantly improve our quality of life and assist in turning our imaginations into reality.
Again, scientists are barely scratching the surface of quantum computing—if that, even. But if it means curing cancer, living on Mars, and having your own solar-powered JARVIS within our lifetimes is now in play, then that’s certainly reason enough to be excited. So, let your imaginations run wild.
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