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BusinessDay: Quantum computing ushers in the rise of a new paradigm

As the world moves from the age of silicon to the quantum era, the stakes are extraordinarily high.

By Johan Steyn, 10 January 2024

For more than 50 years, Moore’s Law, named after Intel founder Gordon Moore, has been a guiding principle in the world of computing. This law states that computer power doubles about every 18 months, a prediction that has remarkably held true, fuelling the explosive growth in computer capabilities.

This unprecedented growth has affected society profoundly, transforming how we work, communicate and entertain ourselves.

However, this era of rapid growth in silicon-based computing is approaching its physical limits. Microchips have become so compact that their thinnest layers of transistors are nearing atomic scales. With layers only about 20 atoms across, we’re fast approaching a critical threshold; at about five atoms across, the unpredictable behaviour of electrons — stemming from the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics — threatens the practicality and efficiency of silicon chips. 

The decline of Moore’s Law — heralding the end of the Silicon Age — coincides with the rise of a groundbreaking new technology: quantum computing. Traditional computers, including the most advanced supercomputers, operate using bits — the basic units of digital information represented as 0s and 1s. These bits are processed sequentially, forming the backbone of digital computing.

Quantum computing, however, leverages the principles of quantum mechanics to transcend these limitations. In quantum computers, the basic unit of information is the qubit or quantum bit. Unlike a traditional bit, a qubit can exist in multiple states simultaneously due to the quantum phenomenon of superposition. 

Quantum computers exploit another quantum property known as entanglement. When qubits become entangled, the state of one qubit instantaneously influences the state of another, no matter the distance between them. This property enables quantum computers to perform complex calculations at speeds unattainable by classical computers.

The potential of quantum computing was vividly demonstrated by Google’s Sycamore quantum computer, which achieved what is known as “quantum supremacy”. With 53 qubits, Sycamore processed calculations that would be practically impossible for the most powerful supercomputers, showcasing the immense potential of quantum computing. 

Despite their potential, quantum computers face significant challenges. Maintaining qubits in a stable state, known as quantum coherence, is incredibly challenging due to the loss of quantum states caused by external environmental factors. The sheer complexity of entangling multiple qubits in a controlled manner remains a significant technical hurdle.

The implications of quantum computing extend beyond sheer computational power. The ability to process vast amounts of data at unprecedented speeds raises concerns in areas like cybersecurity, as quantum computers could theoretically break many of the cryptographic systems currently in use.

As the world transitions from the age of silicon to the quantum era, the stakes are extraordinarily high. The development of quantum computing promises to solve some of the world’s most complex problems, from climate modelling to drug discovery. However, it also poses new challenges and raises important ethical and security considerations.

While the end of Moore’s Law signifies a turning point in the history of computing, it also marks the beginning of a new, exciting era. Quantum computing, with its unparalleled potential, is set to redefine the landscape of technology and its impact on society. As we stand on the brink of this quantum revolution, it is imperative to navigate these uncharted waters with foresight and responsibility, ensuring that this powerful technology is harnessed for the greater good of humanity.

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