Could quantum hold the key to saving the environment?
At our recent Technology Days event, we launched the Quantum Learning Machine, a powerful emulator that is helping us to tackle a serious cybersecurity problem. Since World War Two, we’ve grappled with cracking enigma codes, but as we learn from science fiction, asking the right questions enables us to do more than just encryption breaking. Perhaps if we were to develop the right applications, quantum computing could help to save the environment...? Here, I explore this in more detail.
The promise of quantum computing
Quantum computers are not simply superfast computers that will herald a new age of data analysis within the next five years. In fact, ‘superfast’ is an improper way to describe quantum computing at all, since each individual computational step will probably be slower than with a traditional computer. That said, quantum computing enables us to experiment with the number of steps required, explore indeterminism (which you can read more about in my series on securing the post quantum world here), and even play with the timely flow of events. If you think this might sound like some form of science fiction, then you are not wrong, it could however, be possible in the future. You can learn how to use these things in a familiar environment, without the need to focus on the rapid advancements in quantum hardware, by using a standardized interface.
Is 42 the answer to the right question?
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer, Deep Thought, is built to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. The evident answer is 42, but that is because the right question to find the right solution wasn’t asked. The same holds true for quantum computing: the right questions need to be asked if these powerful machines are to reach their potential and their range of capabilities are to be fully explored.
Quantum computing can also be used to crack encryption codes. As encryption keys are generally small, this means they are easier to be built into a relatively small quantum oracle that the computer can use. In a nearly identical chain of events, algorithmic advances made to run on revolutionary new hardware resulted in the decryption of the Enigma code during World War Two. We see the same development in quantum computing; new machines are being built that are driven by the continuously developing cryptanalysis algorithms that can break encryption. The big difference now is that with an emulator, we have a few years of development on our side, because the mathematicians do not need to reprogram newer hardware from scratch and can use a standardized interface.
The potential for quantum to save the planet?
Other, perhaps even more exciting, developments in quantum computing relate to simulating chemistry. Take for instance, the Haber process for Nitrogen Fixation; currently consuming 3-5% of the world’s gas production and 1-2% of the world’s annual energy levels. It is a highly inefficient process, but with a 200 qubits quantum computer, we could find a catalyst to carry out the same task with a fraction of that energy. That same power could be used to produce catalysts for carbon capture in the air, enabling us to reduce carbon emissions at the source by 80-90%, and potentially even allowing us to start scrubbing the carbon dioxide from the air. This solution could turn the tide in the rapid rise of temperatures…
Upskilling the industry
While these applications hold much promise for the future of sustainability, they require a team of highly skilled developers that can use quantum computing to its maximum potential. It will be a few decades before cracking quantum programming becomes a three-day online course for the masses! We need to learn how to work with quantum computers, and will need a familiar interface to work with. These will enable programmers and mathematicians to start asking the right questions now that will prove the strengths of upcoming quantum computers today to run them tomorrow. The AQLM launched during Atos’ Technology Days aims to do exactly that.