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From Bits to QUbits: A New Era of Computing (Part 2)

History is certainly an interesting thing and often also fun. Archimedes of Syracusa – yes, the guy with the trademark words “Eureka! Eureka!” (I found it! I found it!) – made the discovery, which bears his name (Archimede’s principle,) by accident when in the bath tub. Bluntly put, Penicilin was also discovered by accident, by Sir Alex Fleming in 1928, while carving into the mold around a bacteria culture he was growing. The PostIT notes were the result of a failed adhesive that turned to be a great business idea when applied in the right place. Morale? Many discoveries in the world’s history were made by mistake and/or as a result of a totally unrelated challenge. IBM’s Watson was no exception.

In the previous article I highlighted the essentials of cognitive computing and IBM’s incredible breakthroughs. I have touched a bit of the hardware aspect and I have expressed my enthusiasm about its possible applications. I have also tried to point out the main differences between a conventional computer and a cognitive one: while a normal computer is programmed to do something, a CC is programmed to learn by itself how to do the exact same tasks.

The WATSON project was started as a challenge. In the beginning of the 21st century, the American (very popular) TV quiz contest Jeopardy! needed a worthy non-human participant that could beat its all time record holders. And it did not take long before that became reality. About 3 years of thorough preparation and a team of 20 scientists from IBM Research were just enough to start the THIRD era of computing.

“This is the third era of computing. The first age was mechanical computation, relying on punch cards. The second was programmable systems with input/output storage — what we use today. Now systems are trained or taught instead of programmed. From a developer’s standpoint, you have to get into teaching a computer.” – said Steven Abrams, director of technology for the Watson Ecosystem, in an interview with InformationWeek.

Watson is now able to compete in the show at a human expert level in terms of precision, confidence and speed, after an insecure start. Its launch has revealed that the computer’s ability to input complicated sentences and to provide accurate outputs was one of the biggest difficulties to overcome, in all computing’s history. Years later, Watson was past that point and has beautifully managed to reach a level high enough to be able to filter natural language, now even in a couple of other tongues than English. Therefore, Watson’s strengths are: scale, the ability to process natural language and the capacity to always assimilate new information. Beautiful!

Cognitive computers will enable us to understand the complexity of big data (in a market of trillion dollars), it will help us understand how the human brain works, it will help us integrate universal technology in our daily lives, it will save money and it will reveal patterns no one has observed before and only imagination is the boundary of this list. Data, data, data.  According to IBM, 80% of world’s data is unstructured. And Watson has the ability to filter it all at an unimaginable speed, to support its outputs with evidence and to offer context and insights. Just think of the business potential CC carries. CC’s capabilities will be used for analytical tasks and will help us make the right decisions at the right place and time. When brands are becoming more and more about experiences, with a computer picking up data about one’s customers (from social media, from the available literature, from computer-human interaction) and scaling it to such an extent, it would be crystal clear where and what to improve. Some may worry about safety, but let me offer you an example. Imagine world’s biggest hackers try to obtain sensitive governmental information. What will Watson do in case of an attack? It will use its abilities and its past experiences to almost immediately create a cure. It will not only defend itself (and us), but it will also add this just-solved problem to its skills set, continually improving. The technology can also be implemented on mobile phones, on self-driving cars and on… pretty much everything.

Quantum Computers

If everything was not already really promising, Quantum Computing has finally become reality as well. It is fair to say the technology has been there for already 15 years, but perfecting it and making it publicly available only happened recently. For a long time scientist have been struggling to figure out how to use the immensity of potential Quantum Mechanics have. The problem with today’s computers is that they have reached their top capabilities. For the average users, sending e-mails, watching movies and even coding, do not require extremely many high-end specifications. And even when they do, there is always the possibility to upgrade your memory or to add another unit. Finding a place (virtually) for deploying your work is not the real problem. It is the complexity of the tasks that has outrun the capacity of modern computers.

As I was previously pointing out, computers retrieve, process and store data. This all happens in the same environment (well, almost, as they became significantly “smaller”) as compared to half a century ago: electrical circuits and bits.

“Right now, regular computer chips store information as binary bits, which are either in a 0 or 1 state. This system works well, but it means that there’s a finite amount of data that can be processed. Qubits, on the other hand, can be in the state of 0, 1, or both at the same time, which gives quantum computers unprecedented processing power… if we can work out how to build them.” (Fiona MacDonald)

Today’s computers use binary bits to store information, so values of either 0 or 1. Conversely, Quantum Computers use quantum bits or “qubits”, allowing a storing unit to take values of 0 and 1 at the same time. Just like an atom, they can virtually be in two different places at once. The Qubits are particles magnetically suspended in an unimaginably cold environment (just a couple fractions above absolute 0 or in fancier terms, 0 Kelvin ~ -273 degrees Celsius). The extreme temperatures keep the particles in a superposition that allows them to shift values instantly, creating a so-called quantum speed-up. This enables the machine’s computational power to grow exponentially with every added qubit. In fact, every extra qubit doubles the amount of numbers that the computer can process at once. While 10 Qubits can store 1024 numbers, 11 Qubits can store 2048. 100 Qubits enable the computer to store exactly 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376 numbers.

Do you think this is a crazy fantasy? Well, just wait until I tell you that a dozen companies have already made progress in this field. D-Wave Systems (Canada) for instance, has already started selling out their supercomputers and companies just like Google or Microsoft invested heavily in the development of this madness. In fact, both of the abovementioned have been supplied with D-Wave’s technology and both are constantly trying to improve it. D-Wave’s products have already found applications in business and possibilities are still unlimited (just like with cognitive computers). Lockheed Martin, the US jet fighters company, has been implementing quantum computers on its aircrafts, creating one of the most complex and sophisticated weapon there is. Already known uses are in air traffic control, GPS technology, weather prediction, space exploration and even the stock exchange!

World’s biggest dilemmas are just within of a stone’s throw away from being solved. It is being rumored that we are only a couple years away from permanently cracking the quantum computing code. I am looking forward and I am greatly excited about what future has reserved for us. I may be fast in judging, but I truly believe it is an amazing time to be alive. The opportunities are endless, imagination has no boundaries and the technology is available. I live with the hope that with the right mix of perseverance, dedication and education, we will be able to reverse some of the damage we have caused to Mother Earth and that we can turn what she’s offered us into a mean for achieving the greater good. Safely, sustainably and in peace.

Bonus videos:

Other relevant literature:


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