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The quantum computing revolution: Do students feel ready?

Amazed at the hardware structure of quantum computer IBM Q, senior Jason Tsao searches the internet for a portable quantum computer during a quantum club meeting. To his surprise, Tsao was able to find small two-qubit retail quantum computers, called Gemini Mini for sale starting from 500 sold by a Chinese company SpinQ. “I can’t wait for a larger qubit quantum computer to become available and affordable, so we can enjoy the high speeds of computing,” Tsao said.
Raj Jaladi
Amazed at the hardware structure of quantum computer IBM Q, senior Jason Tsao searches the internet for a portable quantum computer during a quantum club meeting. To his surprise, Tsao was able to find small two-qubit retail quantum computers, called Gemini Mini for sale starting from 500 sold by a Chinese company SpinQ. “I can’t wait for a larger qubit quantum computer to become available and affordable, so we can enjoy the high speeds of computing,” Tsao said.

At some point, most people experience their computers being slow or iPhones running out of space. A new way of computing called quantum computing may never run out of space and reach speeds 100 million times faster than current-day computers. Also referred to as supercomputers, quantum computers are set to solve a multitude of complex math factorizations, research simulations and cybersecurity problems that existing devices cannot process.

Advancements in quantum computing have consistently spanned recent headlines. Throughout the research community and technology industry, topics ranging from the potential of quantum computers in solving existing problems to the evolution of quantum artificial intelligence and the steps to a functioning quantum internet are unfolding.

Countries and their governments are also working to be at the forefront of this innovation. Earlier this year, The White House released a readout of the White House Roundtable on “Protecting Our Nation’s Data and Networks from Future Cybersecurity Threats,” where they discussed plans on promoting quantum computing while mitigating risks to vulnerable cryptographic systems. Plans include collaboration between federal agencies, the research community and industry not just to advance innovation but more importantly to facilitate the migration of federal government information technology systems to quantum-resistant cryptography, for matters of national security.

What is quantum computing?

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Quantum computing is a cutting-edge technology that uses the principles of quantum mechanics to process information and to increase computational power. Unlike traditional computers that operate on bits — each bit being either zero or one — quantum computers use quantum bits, or “qubits.” 

These qubits can be both zero and one at the same time, creating exponential possibilities, because of a property known as superposition. As opposed to classical physics where particles have well-defined positions and states, in the quantum world particles such as electrons exist in multiple positions and states simultaneously. The numerous probabilities of finding the electron in various states are represented mathematically as a wave function. This concept is somewhat analogous to a flipping coin. If heads represent ‘1’ and tails ‘0,’ a spinning coin in the air can be both heads and tails at the same time and is considered to be in a superposition state. 

The three principles of quantum computing are superposition, entanglement and interference. These properties allow quantum computers to process vast amounts of data simultaneously, leading to processing power exponentially superior to that of classical computers.

“It’s a different type of computing that has vastly different capabilities than traditional computing,” vice president of the Quantum Computing Club and senior Jason Tsao said. “In classical physics, an object exists in a well-defined state. However quantum objects can exist in many states at the same time, which is an interesting and intriguing concept. Sometimes quantum states feel fuzzy and imaginative, but you know they are real because you can represent them mathematically and use them as a computing tool.”

Differences between Classical and Quantum computers
(Raj Jaladi)

Tsao joined the Quantum Computing Club in his sophomore year because he thought it was a new concept and he wanted to learn more. The Quantum Computing Club is open to all students irrespective of any prior experience in coding.

“Once I joined, it was interesting to see how quantum computing could be used to solve all sorts of problems. I am frustrated at the slowness of current-day computers at solving complex math factorizations and algorithms. I see the promise of quantum computers in turning some of these algorithms into polynomial time, which is much faster,” Tsao said. “It’s an abstract topic, bringing physics, particle physics and computing together, which is a crazy connection to make.”

Because quantum computing is an interdisciplinary field including principles from physics, mathematics and computer science, students interested in different fields are drawn towards it. According to Professor Deutsch of the University of New Mexico and Director of the Center for Quantum Information Control, the interdisciplinary nature makes it easier for more students to learn quantum computing. 

“Integrating concepts from physics, math and computational science is complicated and it’s not easy. But that’s what gives it more [potential] and that’s why it’s new,” Tsao said. “It is fun to learn how to bring together ideas from different fields and mix them in new ways.”

Although the journey of quantum computers started in 1968, fully functioning quantum computers came into existence just in the last decade. Today companies such as IBM and Google have their own quantum computers. Universities such as MIT also have a quantum computer, and many others such as Washington University in St. Louis is trying to build their own. Experts predict that in the future, quantum computing could play a huge role in our everyday lives by powering algorithms, helping to develop new pharmaceutical drugs, improving AI and solving the world’s problems.  

“Today, quantum computing is being primarily used for research. Large companies are using it to find ways to improve their products and create more efficient processes, like to find more energy efficient and ecological shipping routes for products or to simulate variations of chemical reactions,” Parkway Chief Information Officer Jason Rooks said. ”It is being used in limited ways where traditional computing methods are impractical.” 

Applications of Quantum Computing

According to the Brookings Institute, quantum computing holds the potential to tackle problems currently deemed impossible for classical computers including issues in cryptography, drug discovery, finance and data analysis. One of the biggest applications of quantum computing is in cybersecurity. Because of the ability to solve factorizations and logarithms at superspeeds, quantum computers can easily break conventional cryptography that rely on mathematical principles. Additionally, they can create more secure solutions through a variety of new non-mathematicall modes of encryption such as lattice-based, code-based, or hash-based and quantum keys that can be hard to recreate and hack.

“I think quantum computing is going to revolutionize cryptography and the way we protect information. It will theoretically provide end-to-end encryption for users that is unbreakable. At the same time, it will make nearly all modern forms of encryption obsolete,” Rooks said.

Researchers are worried that quantum computing will have the ability to break most modern encryption and cryptography, rendering all existing data and communications insecure. This has led to countries and governments rushing to take the lead in funding the technology. Such a breakthrough can affect not just countries and national data, but also every individual’s data on the web.

“At the school level, I think the practical application for quantum computing will be protecting staff and student data,” Rooks said. ”Quantum cybersecurity has the potential to detect and deflect cyberattacks significantly better than our current measures.”

Scientists predict quantum computing could revolutionize medical research and clinical care. By simulating molecular interactions at the quantum level, quantum computing can easily predict the efficacy and side effects of potential drugs. It can also help improve medical imaging, diagnostics and genomics, paving the path to highly personalized medicine. Last year, Cleveland Clinic deployed an onsite private sector IBM-managed quantum computer dedicated to healthcare research.

“As someone [pursuing] a career in medicine, I am excited about the potential intersections between quantum computing and [the medical field],” senior Marvin Sze said. “Quantum computing can not [only] accelerate drug discovery, but help customizing drugs and personalizing treatments. The implications at the individual level are fascinating.”   

Sze is a member of the Quantum Computing Club and is interested in quantum applications in day-to-day life beyond medicine. He is looking forward to Quantum’s EV (Electric Vehicle) batteries which have significantly longer life. Companies like Ford and Hyundai are leveraging quantum computing to design advanced batteries for electric vehicles and other battery-operated devices for increased power, faster charging times and longer life.

“Although I didn’t know anything about quantum computers, I joined the Quantum Computing Club because of my love for new technologies,” Sze said. “I can’t wait to go on a cross-country trip without needing to recharge the car battery.”

Are we ready?

Although courses in quantum computing are not yet being offered at high schools, universities such as Stanford and MIT offer quantum computing courses for high school students. Companies such as IBM’s Qiskit and the Coding School’s Qubit by Qubit offer quantum computing camps and workshops for high school students.

“We do not have any current plans for course offerings in quantum computing [at Parkway]. That being said, if a student is interested in quantum computing we would try to find a way to integrate it into our Spark! Technology Solutions program,” Rooks said.

Quantum Hackathons hosted by MIT and several other organizations are also gaining popularity where students irrespective of their age can participate and learn. 

“Quantum computing is going to be a game changer when the shift happens,” Rooks said. “No matter what area of IT or computer science students are interested in pursuing, they should have a foundational understanding of quantum computing and the implications for all the various fields of technology.” 

Although experts and media are still determining if we are ready for the coming revolution, progress is moving fast.

“Similar to the way we saw AI go mainstream last year, I think quantum computing will also make a big splash once we have a tangible tool the average person can understand. When this tipping point is reached it will spark a lot of important conversations around how quantum computing should be used and help us gauge how ready we really are for the opportunities it opens up,” Rooks said.

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on May 8, 2024.