What is this quantum supremacy thing?

Some have already seen the headlines; a Google paper leaked that their research team have now achieved what’s known as quantum supremacy (or quantum computing supremacy). According to the leak, a 53-qubit superconducting device has performed a computational task in 200 seconds that would take the most powerful existing computer 10,000 years to complete.

So, what does this mean for you and me as public relations professionals exactly?

Since our work in the public relations industry is heavily based on electronic information, it’s important for us to have a basic understanding of how quantum computing is different from classical computing. The mainstream narrative, unfortunately, is somewhat off the mark; quantum computing is often described as a brute-force tool to crack encryptions or help physicists with astronomical calculations. But this isn’t the best way to better understand quantum computing.

We need to get a (qu)bit more in-depth.

The strange world of quantum mechanics

Unlike a bit, a qubit could be a one or a zero or any combination thereof (zero-one, one-zero, zero-zero, one-one) — until measured. Then it’s only what the measurement shows that it is. Does this mean that the qubit had that precise value even before it was measured? Well, that is quite literally… uncertain.

In the realm of quantum mechanics, the world seems to be quantised. That means that certain physical phenomenons can be expected to be found in specific locations, but never in-between these locations. Until a particle is “forced by observation” to be in a specific location, it exists as an “uncertainty cloud” in all of these possible quantised states at the same time.

These quantum properties allows the particle to behave as a wave when it needs to, and as a particle when it needs to. On of the many odd circumstances is that these waves seems to “know” ahead of time where “their” particles, when measured, will end up. As time is relative to the speed of light (at which these particles travel) time doesn’t really pass1.

By having a number of qubits working together, they are able to behave like waves splashing back and forth. When waves crashes into each other, they either amplify each other — or they cancel each other out. This is known as interference patterns. A quantum computer will therefore amplify the right answer to the computation while canceling out the wrong ones. Once the pattern (the answer) has emerged, the states can be measured like particles.

The unfathomable power of connected qubits

Google managed to string 53 qubits together. Now, to most of us as laypersons, 53 qubits might sound like a small number given how many bits we can find within any modern laptop or mobile phone. But it bears repeating:

Google’s superconducting 53-qubit computer performed in 200 seconds a computational task that would take the world’s most powerful computer 10,000 years to perform.

Why not use more qubits? The physical explanation is that qubits are, by nature, difficult to create, contain and to keep stable. At least for now.

The output of a quantum computer, besides being fast, is also insanely difficult to error-correct or even verify. Right now, the engineers must use traditional computers to determine whether or not the output of the 53 qubit experiment is correct, but these computations can only verify the lower end of the output. We will be needing quantum computing to also error-correct for quantum computers, period.

Why not only make quantum computers from now on?

In lay terms, quantum computers literally think differently than classic computers. It’s not just a question of qubits having more possible variations; it’s the use of the uncertainty principle and waveform interference at the quantum level that ultimately makes quantum computers supreme to classical computers.

For all of us working with information technology in some shape or form, this makes it interesting to speculate around what types of effects these forms of computations might have on a society where all of us have access to applications with quantum capabilities. 

Due to the physical limitations of qubits and the challenges of error-correcting qubit systems, it’s unlikely that we will be carrying around quantum computers in our pockets in a foreseeable future. Classical computing will have its place amongst us for many years to come and it’s not very likely that we will be carrying around “quantum laptops” in the near future.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that we as public relations professionals might have access to central quantum processing via the cloud.

Put blind faith in the machines — or perish in oblivion

From a philosophical perspective, we might soon find ourselves in a world where computers literally knows more than we do and where they have recommendations for us on everything from how to make decisions to how we should behave. Computers might soon be much better than humans at suggesting who to establish relationships with, what to eat, how to get from point A to B, and how to create, innovate, and solve problems. We might just be better off taking both business- and relationship advice from computers than from other human beings.

The conundrum here is that we might not be able to grasp why a quantum computer system ends up with a certain answer — especially if the qubits are nested several layers deep. The only thing we can do is to examine track records and decide to blindly trust whatever these algorithms tells us.

As public relations professionals, we can expect to have softwares and targeting systems at our fingertips that will advise us on what to say when and to whom for maximum effect. And these systems would statistically outperform otherwise reliable gut feelings and the most creative brains in our industry.

About the Author

This article was written by Jerry Silfwer is an awarded freelance consultant specialising in digital strategy and public relations. Based in Stockholm, Sweden. See more.

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