Quantum Realms: why predicting the next major innovation is so hard
Quantum computing is potentially the next great wave of innovation - but it's in the pre-product, pre-consumer stage, so it's hard to understand. But what other science could end up upending how we live?
One of the bizarre things about scifi that predates the 90s is that the internet and mobile phones are largely missing. There's nothing that resembles them in many situations and, indeed, many stories wouldn't work with them.
We can only extrapolate forwards well from what we understand.
And that makes quantum computing a particularly hard thing to predict. It's based on the science of quantum mechanics which itself upset many of our centralities about the world, conceiving of things better modelled as probabilities than as solid objects. It's so at variance with our lived experience of reality it's hard for us to build a mental model of it.
Here's a brief explainer.
Even simpler technology - like digital computing - took productisation before it seemed relevant to most people. The internet existed before email and the web - but it was really the latter that brought it into a more central role in people's life. The abstraction of a technology replaced by the reality of an application.
We're still very much in the pre-product stage of quantum computing - and the implications are truly mind-bending. Did you know that scientists have (briefly) reversed time in a quantum computer? Reverting a single particle to an earlier quantum state is hardly the stuff of Doctor Who, but it is an example of quantum computing manipulating reality in a brand new way.
The Quantum Smart City
The potential of the technology is much wider than that. At its best, quantum computing looks ideal for handling massive data processing without the need for absolute precision. Where might that be useful? Well, how about the massive data that mobility in a truly smart city will require?
Future smart cities represent a context in which such problems abound. Imagine London or Paris full of driverless cars. The artificial intelligence algorithms, sitting under the hood of every smart car, would solve the local problems. They would navigate the streets by constantly scanning the car’s environment to determine the best tactic, for instance, should the car stop or accelerate at the nearby intersection. Yet, such local decisions might not be optimal on a larger scale. Thus, the city might want to have a quantum computer to optimise the city-wide traffic flows. The system could give different suggestions to different cars to shorten their travel time.
Some of the issues we're trying to solve with digital technology might yield more easily to quantum tech - but with a cost in centralisation. And that's why it is important to be thinking about this tech, even if it's years off productization and adoption. Are we ready for the idea of much of our transport being centrally controlled? Public transport already is, and we're familiar with that. But could our personal car surrender some control to an urban system? That's a big mindset shift…
Beyond Quantum - Parallel Worlds of Science
Like many children of the 70s, I grew up with an assumption that the major new technologies that would reshape my life would be either automation or travel-based. And yet, I still lack a flying car and a household robot. (And yes, I could buy a roomba, but it's just not what I was promised, is it?) While I might have joined the computing revolution in the 1980s with the ZX81, a gift for my 10th birthday, I had no idea of the likely impact. That the tiny machine I had then would be an ancestor of the powerhouse in my pocket that is the iPhone X was unimaginable even to a very scifi-oriented child.
And so, it's worth remembering as we try to predict the consequences of blockchain and quantum computing that they are just part of the rich tapestry of scientific endeavour. We pay attention, of course, to predicting the computing part of the world, which is where our focus is right now because it brought the last major revolution. The assumption is that the next revolution will follow the last. But could the next major innovation be in material science? Or biology? Or genetics?
Or could it be in some intersection of the two in a way we haven't yet predicted? Quantum computing could end up as the enabler of the next big revolution, which occurs in a different field, rather than as the revolution itself.
There are scientists hard at work in labs worldwide right now, evolving and developing ideas. Just because the mainstream attention isn't on them right now, doesn't mean that their innovations won't change the very way we live.