The concept of using quantum mechanics as a basis for building computer systems has far-reaching implications for our collective futures. The sheer theoretical computational power of a quantum computer and the way such power would change our lives is difficult to comprehend. Of course, that is the very reason why science and tech companies like Microsoft are pursuing quantum research so enthusiastically.
The binary machine language of all our current computing devices is based on the bit. Using combinations of zeros and ones, our digital computers can do everything from take a photo to search the universe for extraterrestrial life.
At the quantum level, particles of matter can exist in one of two states. That means the familiar binary form of machine language could be applied, with a few modifications, at the quantum level with the use of quantum bits (Qubits). It also means the computational mechanisms would be densely packed in very small places.
The computational density that could be achieved by a quantum computer is where the theoretical power would come from. It is an exciting and potentially evolutionary concept requiring serious research, and Microsoft is looking to lead the way.
Microsoft Research's Quantum Architectures and Computation Group (QuArc) has developed and released to the public a set of tools that allows computer scientists to simulate a quantum computer's capabilities. The Language-Integrated Quantum Operations (LIQUi|) simulator is available on GitHub. The i|> at the end refers to how a quantum operation is written in mathematics.
Keep in mind, the whole concept of quantum computing is in its infancy and everything is still theoretical. Therefore, you won't be seeing anything practical, especially at the consumer level, for a very long time. However, it is important research, and Microsoft wants to still be relevant a hundred years from now, so it looks toward the future of computers.
One of the reasons I bring up the potential for quantum computing and Microsoft's research is that I think it points to a fundamental flaw in the recent hype about upcoming virtual reality devices. Current computational technology limits the "reality" these devices will be able to produce. The result is that virtual reality contains little that is real, and most of the applications being touted come off as simplistic and cheesy.
For example, I look at something like the recently announced partnership between Microsoft and Volvo to use HoloLens to sell cars and wonder why. Why would either company think this gimmick is a good idea? It's impractical and will do more to distract potential car buyers than entice them. Virtual reality is not going to make a Volvo station wagon sexy.
If we compare the immersive capabilities of 2016's crop of virtual reality devices to the immersive capabilities of video games throughout their history, I would say we are leaving the Space Invaders era and entering the first-generation Microsoft Flight Simulator era.
In other words, we still have 25 years of development to go before virtual reality becomes a mainstream device everyone will have lying around in their living rooms. In fact, it may take the creation of a quantum computer to pull it off effectively.
What the future holds
Technological changes happen at breakneck speed these days, so it would be foolhardy to predict the future with any certainty beyond a year or two. However, with that being said, I will take a stab at it and predict that at some point in the next 10 years we will see the development of a working quantum computer. And when that day comes, everything will change and the pace of that change will exceed our current expectations.
Who knows, perhaps with quantum computers, virtual reality will become our preferred reality. The fact that companies like Microsoft, with their deep pockets, are committed to quantum computing research makes it possible. Whether that is a good or bad thing has yet to be determined.
The potential of quantum computers is difficult to fathom. However, we can assume that quantum computers will be highly disruptive to the status quo. Are you looking forward to such a future?
Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.