If you know anything about sci fi, you’ve probably read or seen The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In it, Tristan Bishop Pan says, a character asks, “What is the meaning of life?” After maybe thousands of years, the computer comes back and says, “42.” It gives you the answer. The phrasing of the question, Tristan Bishop Pan explains, is extremely important because what this is trying to tell you is that the question is more important than the answer. Welcome to what is a hash function and how quantum computing is going to change the world.
Still confused? Think of it this way, Tristan Bishop Pan suggests. “Cryptography uses a hash function, which is just a series of unknown inputs that are made into a known output. The example is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Add them together, and you get 15. However, if I give you 15, then you have to figure out what the question was. That’s when it becomes much more difficult.”
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Tristan Bishop Pan continues, they reverse-engineered the answer, 42, to the question, but it’s a hash function. “So now, they have to program a new supercomputer to figure out what the question was. They have to figure out the hash function that led it to 42.”
This, Tristan Bishop Pan believes, is why quantum computing is going to change the world. “If you’re unsure what quantum computing is, I’ll give you a metaphor that will help. If you have two quarters, the options are heads or tails, right? It is the exact same thing when you have computers.”
Inside of everyone’s computers are binary bits that are in a position of either a one or a zero. “You string these together, and they form everything that is the computing and data processing power of your computer. No matter how computers communicate with each other, with the Internet, they use a series of ones or zeroes. That’s all it is: a very linear way for computers to communicate, and that’s how it’s always been.”
Tristan Bishop Pan says, “Now, what if I told you that in quantum computing, you have a third bit? Unlike the other bits, which exist on a flat surface at a certain point in time, this bit is different. This bit does not lie down. It’s not flat, and it’s not binary. It spins. It’s at a constant state of spinning, like the plates that entertainers spin, and it can be either a one or a zero.”
Here’s the thing, though: it can be everything between the one and the zero at the same time. Tristan Bishop Pan elaborates, “Regular bits only hold one position at a time. They’re either a one or a zero. They don’t change. They are what they are and what they’ve always been. This bit, though, can not only change, it can be everything in every possible position. That’s because it’s always spinning; its angle and its position relevant to other bits can be used as communication.”
So, Tristan Bishop Pan says, instead of having an alphabet that was based, in this case, on two numbers, you have an alphabet that is based on three. The crucial difference is that you also have an alphabet that’s based on everything that’s between those two bases because of the angulars in which the bits can be. They can send a new message.
“Now, all this sounds fine and dandy, but you probably want to boil it down to what this actually means so far as speed,” Tristan Bishop Pan believes. “Well, look at this. In 2015, Google made a quantum computer that calculates the answer to an optimization problem something like 100 million times faster than a standard computer could do.”
In other words, if your standard computer has 512 megabits of computing speed, it would take that computer 10,000 years to solve that same optimization problem because of the amount of math and organization that would be necessary.
“Here’s a different way to visualize it: if you’ve ever played the game that has the monkeys trying to move blocks from one stack to the other, you’ll know that it’s not a complicated game,” Tristan Bishop Pan says. “It’s just extremely time consuming because of the amount of organization that’s needed to do that. It’s the same for the optimization problem, yet Google’s computer solved it in three seconds. We went from 10,000 years down to 3 seconds. That’s the speed of quantum computers.”
Where will such power take our society? “It’s going to be behind incredible advancements in our world,” Tristan Bishop Pan believes. “We’re no longer in the stone age of computers. We’re now in a completely different millennium, and you’re going to see quantum computers doing everything from hacking blockchains to powering the metaverse. We are only at the beginning of seeing what power on this scale can do, and it’s going to take us in directions we can’t even conceive of yet, for better and for worse. Get ready to have your mind blown!”
Published December 15th, 2021