November 20, 2016

SCHULMAN | Quantum Computers Are Game Changing

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It’s okay if you don’t know the difference between quantum computer and a flux capacitor. Even if quantum computing seems complicated, its implications are easy to understand. Although they sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, these things are going to change the world. Quantum computers are going to revolutionize our ability to predict complicated phenomena.

Quantum computers are good at modeling complicated things because they exploit quantum uncertainty, the principle that an electron can be in two states at once. Simply put, they are good at multitasking compared to normal computers because normal computers calculate one thing at a time. For example, if I add one and one on a normal computer I get two. On a quantum computer I can add one and one and get zero, one or two because I can add any combination of zero and one  together at the same time.

Predicting sports highlights this difference. Normal computers are great at predicting baseball. If you’ve seen Moneyball, you know what I mean. In 2002, the Oakland Athletics made the playoffs by building their team purely based on statistics. Although the movie didn’t bring it up, I imagine computers made that strategy possible by crunching the numbers.

Computers are well suited to making baseball predictions because baseball is mostly sequential. The pitcher throws a pitch, the batter swings, the fielders make a play and repeat. Obviously, certain things happen simultaneously. A runner can steal a base, during an at bat for example.

But, it’s very different from a sport like American football, where things happen simultaneously all the time. In football, there are 11 players on each team. Players interact and make at least two or three individual decisions. Keeping track of all these things to make predictions across a few plays would overwhelm a normal computer. Quantum computers are game changing because they can efficiently track the complicated interactions between players and their decisions.

Of course, this is just an example. People aren’t building quantum computers to predict football. People talk about cryptography and optimization (which require keeping track of many interacting states), but the biggest impact quantum stands to make is predicting the economy. People expected that with advances in computing would predict economic indicators like inflation, stock returns and unemployment with accuracy.

Obviously, this hasn’t been working out. In 2008, we had a financial crisis. No one realized we had spread risk pervasively around our financial system because normal computers that compute sequentially are not suited to make economic predictions. As you can imagine, people make decisions simultaneously and those decisions interact. Quantum computers have a better chance at predicting economic indicators because they account for all these states by superimposing them.

Of course, quantum computing still has some bugs. Untangling results from a quantum computations is tricky because we can only observe an electron in one state. So, if I want to add one and one, I can get zero,one or two, but may not always observe right answer. I will only observe two with a certain probability.

That being said, I’m optimistic smart people will work out this out because there is so much potential for quantum computing. Predicting sports is fun, but predicting the stock market and unemployment is world changing. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it! This is my last column this semester, so stay tuned until the spring for more.

Eric Schulman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.