How Scary is Quantum Computing?

Zuber Lawler

Hardly a day goes by when a major article about quantum computing does not appear prominently in the media, often in conjunction with artificial intelligence.  Many of those articles describe – with wonder – the fantastic possibilities that are expected to result from this technology.  But many articles quiver in fear about quantum computing and AI taking over the world, and supplanting humans.  How realistic are those fears, and do they belong only in the sci-fi world of 2001: A Space Odyssey?   

At bottom, the current expression of fear about quantum computing is nothing unusual.  It is a new technology that is expected to improve life in many ways by providing new benefits that could not be achieved before.  It is, however, natural for people to be fearful of anything that is new and changes the status quo.  For example, the advent of the automobile last century surely scared people and animals traveling along streets, and it did devastate the blacksmith trade as automobiles replaced horses.  Although automobile technology is not perfect, as demonstrated by the resulting pollution issues and personal injuries, few would argue that this “scary” new technology did not ultimately benefit society.  Similarly, the advent of word processing vastly reduced the demand for secretarial services, but has benefitted business by the efficiency it provides.  To be fair, it is not always the case that a technological advance proves beneficial.  For example, the notion of using asbestos to provide insulation of furnaces and pipes proved to be undesirable.  Likewise, some alleged “wonder” drugs have side effects and abuses that weigh against their continued use.

Acceptance of quantum computing in particular faces yet another challenge because it is difficult to understand and is contrary to the way people understand how the world works.  So not only are the changes it brings scary, but the way it works is scarier still.

Are these fears justified?  The short answer is, “No.”  Quantum computing is nothing but a tool – although it may be a powerful and useful tool.  It can solve many problems that cannot otherwise be solved because of its power, and it does so by examining a mindboggling number of iterations and possibilities to find an optimal solution.  But, as effective as quantum computing may be in solving problems, it is fundamentally inferior to people because it offers neither creativity nor judgment.

As for creativity, when presented with a problem, quantum computing can be used to answer “how,” but not “why” – and especially not “why not.”  That is what people do.  For example, armed with all weather data in history, a quantum computer program could say when it is the best time to set sail from Spain to go around Africa and across the Indian Ocean to the Far East in the shortest time.  But, unlike a person, it would not consider the possibility of sailing west to go east because the person observed the horizon and thought the Earth might be a sphere.  Similarly, a quantum computing program may be able to determine the best size, shape and location for an on/off switch on an iPod, but it would not ask, “Why do we need an on/off switch?” 

As for judgment, search engines, like Google, provide fast searches for all sorts of useful information.  However, they may also provide senseless results, often as a result of a poor or ambiguous request by a user.  For example, a search for a restaurant in “Saratoga” can be utterly useless when one is in Update New York and the restaurant is in Saratoga, California.  Similarly, errors and ambiguities in requests made to navigation applications can lead to plain error.  Human judgment is essential to determine which answers are correct, and which are obviously flawed – and should be ignored.  There may be those who slavishly follow results returned by computers, but that is a dubious practice at best.

Seen in the light of context, the fears expressed about quantum computing are misplaced.  Quantum computing is just a tool – and a very valuable tool – for solving problems that cannot be readily solved today, if at all.  But a quantum computer will provide a solution only to the problem it is properly asked to solve.  First, a human will have to identify the problem, typically through seeking a creative, and different solution to a problem – perhaps even a problem that does not exist today, but will exist in the immediate future.  Next, the proposed way for the quantum computing application to look for a solution to the problem must be properly provided.  A human will then have to review the result to confirm it makes sense, and approve the result for implementation if it does.  Thereafter, the implementation will have to be monitored – again by people – to make sure it is not producing harmful unintended results.  In addition, certain applications may require government regulation where the results are harmful or criminal – which is hardly anything new. 

The bottom line is there is nothing to fear about quantum computing.  Developers and programmers should continue to pursue and to implement quantum based solutions to make life better, and leave it to fiction writers to create quantum-based horror stories to make life more entertaining.

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