If you read only one article this year to feed your brain, check this one out.

An IBM researcher stands next to a cryostat, or cooling chamber, that contains a prototype of a commercial quantum computer processor.

In “While You Were Sleeping,” an article featured by The New York Times (January17, 2018), Thomas L. Friedman discusses what will probably prove to be the most significant contribution to human development: quantum learning. If you are skeptical, good. Read on.

Photo Credit: Andy Aaron/IBM

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Donald Trump poses a huge dilemma for commentators: to ignore his daily outrages is to normalize his behavior, but to constantly write about them is to stop learning. Like others, I struggle to get this balance right, which is why I pause today to point out some incredible technological changes happening while Trump has kept us focused on him — changes that will pose as big an adaptation challenge to American workers as transitioning from farms to factories once did.

Two and half years ago I was researching a book that included a section on IBM’s cognitive computer, “Watson,” which had perfected the use of artificial intelligence enough to defeat the two all-time “Jeopardy!” champions. After my IBM hosts had shown me Watson at its Yorktown Heights, N.Y., lab, they took me through a room where a small group of IBM scientists were experimenting with something futuristic called “quantum computing.” They left me thinking this was Star Wars stuff — a galaxy and many years far away.

Last week I visited the same lab, where my hosts showed me the world’s first quantum computer that can handle 50 quantum bits, or qubits, which it unveiled in November. They still may need a decade to make this computer powerful enough and reliable enough for groundbreaking industrial applications, but clearly quantum computing has gone from science fiction to nonfiction faster than most anyone expected.

Who cares? Well, if you think it’s scary what we can now do with artificial intelligence produced by classical binary digital electronic computers built with transistors — like make cars that can drive themselves and software that can write news stories or produce humanlike speech — remember this: These “old” computers still don’t have enough memory or processing power to solve what IBM calls “historically intractable problems.” Quantum computers, paired with classical computers via the cloud, have the potential to do that in minutes or seconds.

For instance, “while today’s supercomputers can simulate … simple molecules,” notes MIT Technology Review, “they quickly become overwhelmed.” So chemical modelers — who attempt to come up with new compounds for things like better batteries and lifesaving drugs — “are forced to approximate how an unknown molecule might behave, then test it in the real world to see if it works as expected. The promise of quantum computing is to vastly simplify that process by exactly predicting the structure of a new molecule, and how it will interact with other compounds.”

Quantum computers process information, using the capabilities of quantum physics, differently from traditional computers. “Whereas normal computers store information as either a 1 or a 0, quantum computers exploit two phenomena — entanglement and superposition — to process information,” explains MIT Technology Review. The result is computers that may one day “operate 100,000 times faster than they do today,” adds Wired magazine.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Thomas L. Friedman became the Times’s foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist in 1995. He joined the paper in 1981, after which he served as the Beirut bureau chief in 1982, Jerusalem bureau chief in 1984, and then in Washington as the diplomatic correspondent in 1989, and later the White House correspondent and economic correspondent.

 

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