Moore’s Law states the following: “The number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years.” For nearly 50 years, this has been the case. It was based on an easily extrapolated trend with great predictive value.
But there was always a hard limit: the atomic level. We are nearing the point in which dense chips are packed in as tightly as they can go down to the atomic level, at which time Moore tearfully takes back his toys and goes home. There’s ain’t no more room.
Meet the next stage in computing: the quantum level. Not enough room between atoms left for more chips? No problem. Crawl inside the atoms instead. Plenty of room for activities. Space is no object at the quantum level; neither is time. Bell’s Theorem sorted that out back in 1964: Inside the quantum, causation is simultaneous across distance. Cause and effect are not linear through space nor time.
This is almost impossible for us to comprehend. How can an effect be simultaneous to it’s cause? Human beings are linear. Our existence – and the perception of it – is linear. But the quantum takes Newtonian physics and throws it out the window.
How quickly can quantum computing be upon us? More quickly than you might think – in fact, exponentially so:
“In December 2018, scientists at Google AI ran a calculation on Google’s best quantum processor. They were able to reproduce the computation using a regular laptop. Then in January, they ran the same test on an improved version of the quantum chip. This time they had to use a powerful desktop computer to simulate the result. By February, there were no longer any classical computers in the building that could simulate their quantum counterparts. The researchers had to request time on Google’s enormous server network to do that.
“Somewhere in February I had to make calls to say, ‘Hey, we need more quota,’” said Hartmut Neven, the director of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence lab. “We were running jobs comprised of a million processors.”
That rapid improvement has led to what’s being called “Neven’s law,” a new kind of rule to describe how quickly quantum computers are gaining on classical ones. The rule began as an in-house observation before Neven mentioned it in May at the Google Quantum Spring Symposium. There, he said that quantum computers are gaining computational power relative to classical ones at a “doubly exponential” rate — a staggeringly fast clip.
With double exponential growth, “it looks like nothing is happening, nothing is happening, and then whoops, suddenly you’re in a different world,” Neven said. “That’s what we’re experiencing here.”
“Doubly exponential”. This may put that into perspective. Under the auspices of Moore’s Law, we saw exponential increases in accordance with the below chart. This has been going on for nearly 70 years:
Out with the old, in with the new. This is the rate of growth in quantum computing:
Quantum computing is in it’s early stages. At present, it hasn’t yet outstripped classical computing in terms of practical power – a theoretical (but likely not for long) situation known as “quantum supremacy”, in which quantum computers can be used to complete functions which classical computers cannot complete.
How soon might we have this?
So far, quantum supremacy has proved elusive — sometimes seemingly around the corner, but never yet at hand. But if Neven’s law holds, it can’t be far away. Neven wouldn’t say exactly when he anticipates the Google team will achieve quantum supremacy, but he allowed that it could happen soon.
“We often say we think we will achieve it in 2019,” Neven said. “The writing is on the wall.”
“The writing is on the wall.” Interesting choice of words. This is biblical language:
“Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” ”
This was later interpreted by Daniel:
“Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
That was the end of an era and the dawn of another: the falling away of the Babylonian empire to the Medo-Persians.
The writing is on the wall, indeed. If quantum supremacy is achievable, this is the end of Newtonian physics as the baseline for all reality. We will enter the brave new world of the Quantum.
THE QUANTUM AGE
So what exactly can we do with quantum computing? So far, the applications are limited:
“…The vast majority of the work a computer needs to do won’t be performed any faster on a quantum computer than on a classical one. Sequential operations aren’t the kind of thing that quantum computers are designed for, so long after quantum computers fully arrive, we will still use classical computers for the foreseeable future while quantum computers will likely stay in corporate and national labs with processing services provided through cloud computing on an algorithm by algorithm basis.
For all the work needed to create and maintain qubits in superposition, quantum computers don’t really do much of anything at the moment and that will probably remain the case for a little while longer at least. You’d be forgiven for thinking that quantum computers are a whole lot of hat and no cattle, but that would also be a serious mischaracterization of the state of the technology and glosses over the significance of what we already know is just now coming over the horizon.”
It’s an interesting contrast: the development of quantum computing within an organization as large and powerful as Google. Large organizations – corporate, government, charitable, NGO, whatever – are notoriously linear. Nothing happens until the right paperwork is signed. Nobody moves until the top dogs tell the VPs, who tell the Directors, who tell the senior managers, who tell the middle managers to tell their teams to do something. Some organizations are more innovative than others, but that doesn’t change the fact that business processes are linear by their very nature. There is no simultaneous cause and effect in business. On the contrary, cause and effect are often so far removed in terms of time and space that large firms will spend millions on analytics with the aim of getting a better grip on linear cause and effect.
The human perspective is one of cause-and-effect. But we’re told there is no cause and effect at the quantum level – only statistical correlation. With quantum computing, we’re about to enter a world in which non-linear computing processes completely alien to our understanding are leveraged to increase the efficiency of linear tasks in accordance with the extraordinarily linear plans of human beings. How is that even possible? I have no idea. I’m not sure Google has any idea, either. But they have reason to believe it’s possible, and they have successful development to show for it.
Long story short: It’ll be fascinating to see where quantum computing can be most usefully applied. Just watch out for Paul Rudd running around down there.