Though the average consumer is still many years away from seeing or using one, quantum computers are moving steadily from theory to reality, and seems to be following the same accelerated curve most other technologies follow. First theorized in the 1960’s, the field of quantum computing was formally established in the early 1980’s, but actual systems using quantum computing only appeared in this decade. Lockheed Martin purchased in 2011 what appears to be the first physical implementation of a quantum computer: the D-Wave One. Google launched its own quantum computing initiative in 2013 in joint effort with NASA, and Edward Snowden revealed in 2014 alleged plans by the NSA to build a quantum computer expressly for cracking encrypted data.[Skip this section unless you really want a brain twister!] Quantum mechanics on its own is an incredibly dense and complex field of science, and even though quantum computing concerns itself with a specific application of quantum mechanics, it is just as inscrutable as modern computers are now to most people. In a nutshell, where modern computers process data by boiling down everything to zeros and ones (bits), quantum computers process data using qubits, which can exist as either a zero or one, or any number of infinite states in between. While you are trying to wrap your head around that one, consider this next mind-blowing fact: where traditional CPU’s solve problems by switching between one or zero (albeit very, very quickly) and testing a condition (is it 0 or 1), a quantum CPU can simulaneously solve for one and zero at the same time. Because of this capability, a quantum CPU would be vast leap forward both in speed and complexity as compared to a “traditional” CPU.
What this means for you:
Scientists and security experts are justifiably concerned that quantum computers could easily crack the toughest encryption methods in use today. Encrpytion that would normally take today’s computers thousands of years to crack could, in theory, be broken within hours on a quantum computer. It’s not a long jump to suppose that the first organizations to implement quantum computers will be nation-states and large corporations, and then the race will be on to safeguard data with even stronger cryptographic algorithms. Echoing an arms race not unlike the nuclear one in decades past, modern technology is advancing at a pace that most humans will never stay ahead of, and we are relying on a small number of people in power who continually demonstrate an alarming lack of understanding of technology in general. Its important for all of us to step up our game and to focus on, at minimum, learning more about the technology we use everyday, and when we hit our limit, making sure we are protected and led by more knowledgeable people we can trust.
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