“My answer to that question is inconclusive. Everyone talks about quantum computers, and yet it is not clear whether we will ever be able to build quantum computers that are big enough to solve real world problems. The superiority of quantum computers is based on the principle of superposition, among other things. This states that tiny particles like electrons can exist in two states, such as in two different locations at once. Objects from our world, like a tennis ball, cannot do this. The boundaries of the quantum world are still very much a mystery. Where it ends and our day-to-day world begins remains the subject of fundamental physical research to this day. To put it briefly, we are speculating about something and how it might change the world without the certainty that it will become reality.
But then again, if large-scale quantum computers are built, they will change everything. What distinguishes quantum computers from normal computers is their amazing powers of acceleration. Here’s an example: many operating systems have been upgraded from 32-bit to 64-bit, which means they are twice as fast. If quantum computers were enhanced from 32 to 64 qubits, the new system would be not just twice but four billion times faster. If quantum computers of reasonable size could be built, scenarios that are currently reserved for science fiction would become conceivable. It would be possible to perform calculations that would take a conventional computer the entire lifetime of the universe to complete. This is because quantum computers calculate an unimaginable number of possible solutions simultaneously rather than consecutively – at a speed that is beyond our conception.
This does indeed open up undreamt-of possibilities. With the aid of quantum computers, we could develop new materials that would enable us to store huge amounts of energy in a very small space. Electric cars would be a walk in the park, and it might even be possible to generate solar energy in the desert and send it to Europe in small parcels. Quantum computers could revolutionise the development of medicines, too. Vast amounts of time could be saved simply by simulating the correct molecule with precisely the right properties on a computer.
I see it as a privilege in my job to be able to deal with questions that are beyond our powers of imagination. For me, quantum computing is a bit like magic. It is inconceivable, and yet we can calculate it. We can describe the result of inconceivable experiments and can even build machines that do inconceivable things.
One thing is certain: quantum computers have incredible potential. I do not believe that they will solve the world’s big problems, however. At the end of the day, they are machines that perform calculations. They will not solve global warming or eradicate disease on their own. Depending on how we use it, the technology may contribute to solutions and speed up certain processes. But whether it is a blessing or a curse will be up to us.”
Martin Strahm is Head of Data Science at Roche. He has a doctorate in biophysics (the simulation of protein complexes) from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and has been at Roche since 1999. He loves testing new technologies such as deep learning or quantum computers, and is grateful that his job enables him to do precisely that.