Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve watched and re-watched more shows and movies than anyone would recommend (but honestly, who hasn’t). During these binges, I’ve managed to re-watch every single Marvel movie that’s released since the original Iron Man in 2008, and in my opinion, they are just as good the second time around. One of those movies was Ant-Man and the Wasp, and when I re-watched this movie, I discovered something my nerdy side hadn’t fully grasped – what exactly is the quantum realm or quantum physics?
This year alone, there has been more than a 40% growth in patents related to quantum computing. Companies like IBM, which produces quantum computing-related patents, believe that this technology will lead to breakthroughs in science, medicine, finance, security, simulations, and information sharing. However, the question remains: how does this technology work?
Quantum computing is a substantially more powerful way of computing than classical computing. Both classical computing and quantum computing store and manipulate information, but current computers manipulate and calculate individual bits of information in the form of 1’s and 0’s (“binary”). On the other hand, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist as both a 0 and a 1 simultaneously. One way to picture this is to imagine a traditional sphere. In a classical computer, a bit could be at either pole of the sphere. But in quantum computing, the bit can exist at any point in the sphere, which means that the amount of information that users can store has dramatically increased. By harnessing the principles of quantum mechanics, it is possible to improve the efficiency and power of classical computing methodologies.
These capabilities are being realized now. In October 2019, Google used a quantum computer to perform a complex simulation in 200 seconds that would have taken the most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years. IBM is currently heavily investing in quantum technology so that they can have a leg up in the future – giving them a “Quantum Advantage.” They created their network – the “Q-Network” – so that their researchers can have access to the quantum computing tools they’ve created. The 15 quantum computers they have are providing 200,000 users with quantum computing capabilities. Amazon is partnering with Caltech to accelerate the development of quantum computing hardware and software. In 2018, former President Donald Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act, which allocated $1.2 billion to advance research on quantum technologies. $25 million of this is to be spent on a “quantum internet,” making it harder for digital communications to be intercepted. China has created a new $10 billion quantum research facility to improve quantum communication capabilities. There is no shortage of private and public investment – quantum is here.
And now that quantum is here, we are capable of all types of research and development opportunities: new medicines and antibiotics, new complex materials, improved logistics, and transportation. In chemistry, we might be able to simulate specific natural phenomena that aid with drug development. Or we can study materials to figure out how to create new composite materials that would better serve our needs – lightweight materials for airplanes to improve efficiency and reduce emissions. For self-driving vehicles to determine the correct or optimal path, quantum computing could drastically increase the number of simulations that are necessary to determine the solution. Quantum can solve complex problems that generations before us would have to wait decades to discover.
Unfortunately, as quantum computing becomes more prevalent, current encryption methods will become obsolete. Due to their ability to run many complex simulations in an instant, quantum computers will be able to break cryptographic keys instantly. Financial institutions would be subject to a data breach at any time. Hackers would share countries’ secrets with the world at a whim. Also, given quantum computing’s power, whichever country achieves quantum encryptions could hide all of its information. They would be theoretically invisible to standard surveillance methods giving them a significant edge on the rest of the world.
Because of these drawbacks, there are some concerns with granting standard patents to this technology. One of the fundamental goals of intellectual property law is to incentivize people to create and serve the public’s interests and reward IP owners for their creativity. Current patent protection methods will incentivize more quantum hardware and software, but is this what we need? Right now, quantum patents are regularly being created by a few companies. This technology is expensive to develop, and therefore there will not be many people or corporations competing – but they will have a monopoly of this technology. Since it is a technology capable of creating new life-saving drugs or permitting a country to hide in plain sight, maybe patent law needs to change for this technology. Limiting the length of the patent to 3-10 years might better serve the public’s interests. When technology can decrypt information instantaneously, maybe one’s right to have a monopoly should be limited.