The world will never need more than five quantum computers

I have been gradually making my way through Scott Aaronson’s wonderful book, “Quantum Computing Since Democritus.” The book is chock-full of deep insights phrased in just-technical-enough language (the kind which I want to relay to the world through an internet megaphone). Scott really has learned how to apply the good and bad attitudes of the past to the problems of today.

For example, did you know that originally computers had so many problems with errors that many people argued fault-tolerant computers would never exist? This was before the transistor, of course, but it was believed that the external world would always have such an adverse interference with the physical machine that one could not reliably use the outputs. John von Neumann proved to the contrary that even with the error-prone hardware of the time it was possible to design perfect fault-tolerance into a machine. But his accomplishment was largely forgotten after the transistor was invented and shown to be so reliable as not to need any extra error-correction scaffolding.

But the idea that computers would never be error-tolerant enough was probably the origin of the famous slew of quotes that the world would never need more than five computers. It’s not so ridiculous a proposition in that context, since the world also only has need for around five particle accelerators. Scott notices the parallel for quantum computers, the worry that the outside world would interfere with the computations so as to render them useless, and discusses the existence of quantum fault-tolerance in the same vein as von Neumann’s theorem.

Nevertheless, the question of whether the world will ever need more than five quantum computers (assuming they’re feasible to scale) is still a poignant one. It’s not because of error, but because of what kinds of problems quantum computers are believed to be better at than classical computers.

You see, it’s widely known that quantum computers aren’t more powerful than classical computers in the sense that they can compute things that classical computer cannot. The real question is one of efficiency, and by efficiency I mean the difference between polynomial time and worse-than-polynomial time and the problem scales. The truth is we only know of a few key problems that we know quantum computers can solve efficiently, and that we don’t know for sure that classical computers can’t.

One example is factoring integers. We know that quantum computers can factor integers quickly, but we don’t know for sure that classical computers cannot. In fact, many researchers believe that, because of recent advances in computer science and cryptography, we will find a polynomial-time algorithm for factoring integers relatively soon.

The question is, who really needs to factor integers on a regular basis? The only answer I can come up with is number theorists (trying to prove theorems) and the government (trying to break encryption). But these days people are moving away from factoring-based encryption. So who’s left to care?

There are, admittedly, other ways that quantum computers can speed up things, but it’s not as drastic as the mainstream media would have one believe. For example, the best known speedup for solving NP-complete problems, which includes most scheduling, packing, and routing problems (an efficient algorithm for this would revolutionize the world), is on the order of a square-root. That is, it reduces the time from an exponential to a square-root-of-an-exponential, which is still egregiously slow.

This is not to downplay the importance of quantum computing. It’s a multifaceted subject providing a vast trove of interesting problems, answers, and discussions. It excites me that one day I might actually contribute some small fact to nudge forward human knowledge about quantum computing. But the set of useful problems we know how to solve efficiently with quantum computers is just so minuscule. In order to convince me that quantum computers may someday become commonplace, one would need to present a problem that quantum computers can solve with applications on the scale of Facebook. It needs to be something that potentially every human could have use for. And while I am not an expert in quantum computing, if such a problem and solution existed I’d probably have heard of it by now (it would be trumpeted along with factoring and the hidden subgroup problem as triumphs of the model).

So unless there are extreme revolutions in theoretical computer science, which is certainly possible, it seems safe to reuse that infamous quote here: the world will never have need for more than five quantum computers.


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