Have Quantum Nerd-like Fun
When distillation, cooling the liquid, fuzziness and great time is not necessarily what you may think.
You will experience joy explosions, frustration, feeling lost. After a while you will be thinking, you are the smartest person on the planet. Then you may even put some scribbles on a paper, only you can understand. Exhaustion is guaranteed. In weaker days blacking out is an option. Before you pass out, someone close may even hear you trash-talk guys called Pauli and Hadamard.
Many love that vibe. They put some good stuff inside the huge barrels with expensive cables, load them with about $40k of some liquid that suppose to cool down a machine and start… computing?!
You haven’t intoxicated yourself. You’ve done something much more exciting. You’ve entered the new world of quantum computation. Why would you do that? Well, why not? Let me picture the general idea for you.
A quantum computer is a device performing computation. Trust me, you will forget that many times. It uses the quantum physics phenomena. Nature does what it does. We describe it with some rules — specific mathematical regime called quantum mechanics. In the 80s scientists got very serious about the idea of using „quantum magic” for new useful cases. It was basically an invitation to a party.
Those type of machines are real. Yet still not good enough for the desired purpose. But those are already cool-looking masterpieces. Take a look at one example below. The best part is you can learn a lot about theory of information and quantum physics itself pursuing the subject. Even if it may take a long time to have a truly practical prototype.
Incredibly smart people around the world are running a revolution right now. Not with excessive noise in general public. Step by step, with some louder announcement now and then (here’s one recent example). Every major player on the tech scene develops a quantum computer. All that for exceptional scientific discoveries ahead.
You may join the revolution right now. For you it might be just fun, if you want to. Like playing with LEGO bricks. Those smart people set up some hardware, launch web platforms, build communities, where anyone can easily find help, exploring the field. With your commodity machine only you can find new ways for exploring quantum realm.
There is enormous prize for these new developments. We might be able to model the tiniest structure we know — the building blocks of our universe. However, we will be fully satisfied for a while “just” being able to model how our — human — building blocks behave.
I’m talking about proteins. They like to bind to other proteins and fold in a weird way. They act in the quantum way. Which is… weird, as you may know already. Develop successful model of proteins behaviours and you may almost instantly have a cure for cancer, autoimmune diseases and other genetical disorders. That simple? To predict it will happen, yes. But when and how? Not so much.
A side note. Please, pay attention that I used „quantum magic” in the intro between quotation marks. There’s nothing magic about quantum physics. However, it’s definitely strange or weird that I’ve just mentioned. Those adjectives are triggered given our intuition developed while discovering the world at our human level of cognition. Quantum mechanics and quantum computing is a scientific framework not a set of spells directed at — let’s say — a cat. It’s based on linear algebra that is taught at entry college levels! Weirdness starts with extension of the laws of probability to include negative sign. However, it’s still a solid network of logical assumptions. More on this in a future post.
Imagine that reaching the smallest possible scales of our reality is very similar to going far into the abyss of the universe. Going to Mars would be just like standing up from a bed compared to an almost infinite journey measured in millions of light years. This is how far in scale there is from our human level to „the bottom”. This is basically a whole new universe down there!
Fortunately there are some signs it would be much easier to figure out how to build new proteins than going to the farthest galaxies (like the latter would be ever possible).
However, you may ask, why we haven’t figured that out already? Why quantum computation instead of regular computation? We have supercomputers, don’t we? They fill huge spaces, they must be powerful enough to solve our difficult problems, right?
Scientists have been modelling chemistry, climate and other complicated phenomena for decades. But those are only great approximations. There are far too many parameters, meaning certain numbers, to perfectly describe a system of a preference and model its dynamics.
There is one nice and quite popular example picturing a scale of the problems we’re facing. Caffeine molecule. If mathematics is not necessarily your superpower, I’m slowing down now.
Even if you are pretty comfortable with maths, it’s fun to take a step back to have some distance and ponder over scales we’re facing.
To describe caffeine molecule properly you need a number — about 10 to the power of 48 (10 multiplied by itself 48 times). You are familiar with numbers like a thousand (10 to the power of 3) or a million (10 to the power of 6). By the way, could you picture one million of any sort of things right now in your head? Not the seven digits. Million of countable things. I start sweating near that number.
You may think that it’s not that far from 6 to 48. But it is. Remember, it is how many times you do the thing with a ten. We’re dealing with exponents here. Take 20 or 30, put it in an up-right corner of 2 (as an exponent of 2) and you’re at the scale of a number of grains of sand on the entire planet! Our goal is to use that amount as a number of possibilities of certain states (1s and 0s) packed into new types of memory and CPU — the heart of a computer’s architecture we are most familiar with.
From engineering perspective it’s extremely difficult to develop a quantum computer of that scale. We’re currently at about number of 100 building blocks of the core of the machine. Those structures are very fragile, though.
Try building a house of cards consisting of 100 cards. Outside your comfy home. During a storm. Using fishing rods .
You may use as many rods as you like. Satisfied?
You will learn how to handle all of those eventually, though. The thing is, the direction and the speed of wind is constantly changing. Oh! And you need to rotate the whole structure — untouched — to perform desired calculations… This is the goal.
When it’s done, “just” after curing diseases with new drugs, we will also be able to beat current encryption standards, create new ones, disrupt telecommunication, invent new materials and many more. Even problems beyond our current interests. Easy-peasy. But don’t forget the obstacles mentioned above.
One of the best part is, the domain is very young and many new scientists and other passionates enter basically every day. Someone may be discovering new application of a quantum computer at this very moment. Unfortunately software and hardware pursuits are still developed in parallel. Why? Remember, even bewildering announcement can’t hide the fact, that we are still far from the true quantum supremacy era. Do not withdraw your cash from the bank. Encryption standards are still fine.
Quantum computing is not that niche domain, but still mainly attached to the academia. Commercial applications are not that impressive yet.
Nevertheless, at the same time media coverage is growing exponentially, so there is room for confusions, since educational aspects are also at an early stage of a development.
If you are interested I would love to give you some general guidance.
First of all, you should get rid of the idea you can get the essence of quantum computing in 10 minutes and explore the subject with some crash courses. Been there. Doesn’t work.
It’s not a trip to the nearest bar. It’s more like a journey to an exotic place. Like a jungle. Definitely not comfortable, but mysterious enough to keep going and exploring.
I’m not a scientist and, above all, not a teacher. I barely entered the jungle where the paths are nicely cut for those less experienced. I’m about to go further by myself. Already passionate, so I just want to share the experience.
In this piece I want to present a general idea, so you can start developing an intuition for yourself. By the way, good luck with that! There is a famous quote by Richard Feynman:
„If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”.
This quote itself — paradoxically — encouraged many to dig deeper, instead of letting go. Quantum mechanic and quantum computing are obviously close. To understand what’s going on under the hood is fascinating, but you don’t need a PhD in both to start programming a quantum computer.
In the heart of the quantum computation lays a qubit. Quantum bit. Bit is an abstract idea of information. Either there is something or not. But remember, not being there as an opposition of being there, is information as well.
A qubit is even more abstract. One qubit is an amalgamate of two different bits, but in the fog-like form. You just know that useful information is hidden there, yet you want to use it for your purposes. Now, do some „magic” with this fog, which means calculations. After that, just blow that fog away. What’s left is hopefully the result you are looking for.
Another side note. It’s not a real fog. Im not talking about visual aspect and fuzziness, etc. If you have ever faced linear algebra concepts, you don’t treat a linear combination as a blurriness or „a vector is in many places at the same time”. It’s a linear combination — part of the framework you’re using to describe, to model. More of this tricky aspects in a future post, though.
Now back to the not so friendly assumptions for playing with our structure of cards. Literally everything „wants” to destroy the structure. What can we do with that?
In many cases the backbone of a quantum computer is a fridge. That’s right. We’re entering cooling part I mentioned at the beginning. The fridge is pretty expensive. To be more precise it’s a dilution refrigerator. It has hundreds of equally expensive cables like in an audiophile’s home.
This fridge distillates the mixture of helium. This mixture acts in a very nice way. With some help form the outside (a pump) engineers use the fact, that on one side of the fridge temperature drops incredibly low.
What for? To calm down the qubits and its surroundings. Cold means less jiggling. Less jiggling means more precise work of the computer. It’s not about cooling it down not to burn the computer. It’s about reducing mess down there, to get useful information.
Other architectures are also developed. Wherever you find a „strange” behaviour of a quantum world you will find something that might be used as a qubit. Fun fact: very often you do the cooling down with lasers that sci-fi fans associate mainly with guns and burning. Just in case we haven’t reached satisfying level of weirdness…
To run a quantum computer you need some classical ones as a support. The flow of input data, controlling the whole apparatus, distributing the results of calculation and many more are not magical tasks, but definitely needed.
You are going to hear some statements that quantum computer can operate much faster than a classical one. It’s wrong because there is a hidden assumption that it does calculation the regular way.
In the regular way quantum computers are mostly slower! The whole logic of computation is enormously different. However, it’s possible to do classical computations on a quantum computer, just to prove some theories and have a nice starting point.
Another misleading statement: quantum computer does all the calculations at the same time. Imagine a labyrinth. A classical computer checks each possible path and lets you know, when the correct one is found. Quantum machine supposedly scans all possibilities at the same time. It doesn’t work this way! Quantum computation is about exploring hidden structures of data you use. This is where „the magic” of quantum nature reveals its power. It’s not about beating classical computers with doing their job faster. It’s about being faster, but in the space of different approach. Basically new logic.
The analogy that worked for me was an invention of a car. The idea of transportation is based on a simple goal: get me from point A to point B as fast and safe as possible. Horses were used for this kind of tasks. You could have tried different ways to move faster. Perhaps by simulating working of the muscles and legs in general. Or forget about running and „just” invent a new logic of transportation, meaning a car.
It is very exciting and tempting to start explaining one level deeper the basics of quantum computers. Unfortunately without careful introduction to the mathematics I would create unnecessary mess in your head.
Just remember: it is totally different logic of computation. That’s why building useful software might be even more difficult than building the machine itself.
Another very important tip for beginners. You don’t need to take academic courses on quantum mechanics. The same, as you don’t need to be an electrical engineer to built a game app for a smartphone. In the quantum context it’s very useful, though (learning about the physics, of course). We’re still at a stage, where only simple abstractions work. You don’t need to take care, how physically changes a state of a certain qubit, but you need to be aware of the existence of each of them while building structures (circuits) you want.
Once again: we are in a „garage state” of things. We have couple of algorithms. Most of them still in a theoretical space. There are games, but the biggest fun is from building them, not playing them (compared to video games consoles, etc). Every new person in a filed can have amazing impact on the entire ecosystem. That’s why I encourage you to join.
Here’s the best part. You will reach the absolute limits of your brain’s capacity. It will hurt. The field is very addictive, so it doesn’t matter. Be prepared to mood swings, though. I did some „power drinks” in the process to relax after long sessions. Fortunately, haven’t reached the level of hating Pauli or Hadamard (pretty important historic personas in the field).
But long sessions of what? What you really need to know is linear algebra and Python. Other programming languages are also available. I just stated the minimum. I strongly advise you, just from the start, to enter qiskit.org. There are other platforms as well. Xanadu.ai is another example. If you want to jump in even deeper right away, because you kinda already are more technical, check THIS.
So I’m done. Thank you. Bye?
Seriously, though. This is a very good starting point — right into using the machine. There is no better way to get hands dirty right away. I did too many preparations, doing theoretical maths, etc. Again, even if electrical engineering is exciting, you don’t need that for programming a mobile app. Sometimes it will be useful to do some old school of paper and pencil on a side, though.
Whichever field you come from, you may invent the way to use a quantum computer. We are definitely not comfortable with its current state of a development. Maybe this is why it’s so exciting.