While most people think quantum computing is still a few years off, your next taxi ride in Bangkok may be attached to a quantum computer. Toyota Tsusho and Denso recently announced plans to use a cloud-based D-Wave quantum computer to optimize live traffic data from 130,000 trucks and taxis in Bangkok.
While the quantum computer will not yet direct the vehicles in real time—which could be a logical next step via an app telling drivers where to go or instructions sent to autonomous car networks—it is an interesting project because it demonstrates how quantum computers could soon be entering our daily lives. Further, it’s a key demo of what machines like those made by D-Wave—which rely on quantum annealing—are good at: optimization and logistics.
To be clear, quantum computers haven’t fully proven themselves in practical applications just yet, but experiments like this are pushing them in that direction. Eventually, as the kinks are worked out, quantum machines will have a wide impact from scientific research to business. But there’s another area that could benefit from their problem-solving prowess too: Social impact.
This is true for three reasons.
First, quantum computers are good at solving logistical and optimization problems, which are the root causes of many social challenges. Second, because quantum computers are a digital technology, they will be increasingly accessible and affordable to social innovators and nonprofits. And third, because quantum computing will be so powerful, those who embrace it first have a historic opportunity to bring their values and ethics into the world at scale.
Let’s dig into each of these a bit more.
Quantum Computers Are Good at Solving Logistical Problems
Many social problems are logistical and optimization problems. How do we get goods, services, or people to the right location quickly and efficiently? Or how do we predict how climate, a cholera epidemic, or some other element of our environment might behave over time?
D-Wave’s latest quantum computer, which has 2,048 qubits, can handle a huge number of calculations between interrelated variables near-instantly.
Pitting it against Bangkok traffic hints at what such machines might be able to do.
The computer, for example, could predict every route every vehicle should take at any given moment and plot the most efficient path for each vehicle in relation to every other vehicle. But it’s not just traffic. The optimization might also reduce fuel usage, pollution, and car accidents or streamline the movement of ambulances, fire trucks, and police vehicles through a crowded city. If there were a natural disaster, the computer might be able to quickly evacuate people or direct them to emergency shelters. Traffic data could be combined with other data such as a driver’s medical history or location of family members, personalizing, and optimizing evacuation for everyone.
In many ways, it is hard for us to imagine what to do with such computing power given it has never existed before. But it will allow humans to operate at a new scale.
One may be able to better track weather and climate data to prepare for natural disasters, improve agriculture, or control weather at the micro-level. One might create personalized medicine for everyone on the planet taking into account lifestyle, genetics, and environmental factors. Quantum computers could gather data from social media and other sensors to predict and prevent crimes, violence, and conflict. Los Alamos National Labs is exploring the potential for quantum computers to detect formation of terrorist networks.
While we can track some of these issues with traditional computers, it’s important to note that once the data is gathered and software coded, quantum computers can calculate almost instantaneously unfathomably large amounts of data with small energy requirements—and this power can be made accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
Quantum Computers Will Be Increasingly Accessible and Affordable
In the early days of the Information Age, computing was expensive. Machines were costly to buy and only a few people could afford sophisticated training in computer science and programming. In recent decades, we have seen this change dramatically. Costs have fallen, more and more people can access the internet, and software is more user friendly.
Today’s quantum computing companies are already taking steps in this direction. They’re creating open source software and filling the internet with free videos and tutorials on how quantum computers work. Microsoft’s Quantum Development Kit could be used by any software engineer or person who has taken introductory computer science. And importantly, many are aiming to sell access to time on their quantum computers over the internet rather than selling the computers themselves (although buying one’s own computer will be available to certain customers).
As quantum computers take residence in the cloud, nonprofits, foundations, governments, and international aid agencies will have immediate access to them. It is perhaps telling that one of the first tests of a quantum computer is happening in Thailand rather than one of the world’s wealthier nations. Quantum computing will be available anywhere there is internet.
Quantum Computing Offers Social Innovators a Chance to Lead
In addition to offering technical improvements, because quantum computing is a new regime and quite powerful, it also offers the opportunity to bring new players into an industry. A quantum computer managing the flow of cars and taxis through a city can not only make the system more technically efficient, but it offers a clean slate for tackling other problems like corruption, problems in policing, over-pricing from shared cars, and more.
Blockchain is exciting because of its technical potential, but also because it is allowing new players—from startups to the Ethereum Foundation—to enter the finance and logistics industries after being locked out for decades. The same can be true in quantum computing.
It is especially important that organizations with strong ethics and social applications enter the field early. Quantum computing will be powerful, and it will be possible to use it for nefarious purposes such as breaking encryption, swaying financial markets, or facilitating secret communications among gangs and violent groups.
Quantum computers are now ready to be tested and used by more mainstream customers, and as they are developed further, it is important for social innovators to step up and lead.