[Review of JD Capital · Future Forum] The Upcoming Quantum Age


Speaker: Li Miao, dean of Institute of Astronomy and Space Science, Sun Yat-sen University

This is Mr. Li Miao’s speech on the 2017 JD Capital · Future Forum. The draft has been reviewed by the speaker.

Life technologies have actually come true and today I want to talk about an age yet to arrive in two to three decades or even in the further future—the Quantum Age.

In the past 10,000 years, the production mode of human beings has undergone four revolutions, six if divided more specifically, all of which were demonstrated through productivity changes.

The first major change in human history is the agricultural revolution about ten centuries ago. Our means of livelihood changed from ways at the mercy of the nature, such as gathering food and hunting in the wild, to crop farming, and then to animal domestication. In this way, homo sapiens transformed their way of securing food and have peaked the entire food chain ever since.

After that, human beings entered the Agricultural Age, tied to the land and farming every day. Nowadays, some are reflecting on the change: can the agricultural revolution be counted as human progress? As I see it, the answer is yes. Though we are bound to the land, our production capacity was improved and thus provided support for population growth. Actually, the agricultural revolution can be split into three smaller ones. The first one occurred ten centuries ago when human beings began to domesticate animals and grow crops. The second revolution witnessed the beginning of the age of light agricultural implements. Then, the advent of ironware 1,500 years ago marked the start of the third revolution.

The second major change in human history is the industrial revolution. Its initial stage marked the age of steam engines, in which household production was replaced by industrial production. Then, Siemens AG’s invention of electric generator in 1866 announced the beginning of the second industrial revolution which featured the use of electricity. If studied carefully, the intervals between the agricultural revolution, the first industrial revolution, and the second industrial revolution in human history are both one hundred years.

Today’s topic is physics. In fact, the foundation of the two industrial revolutions can be concluded as classical physics. Though all industrial revolutions are for certain complicated, these two are mainly revolutions of energy from the perspective of physics. In the agricultural era, production generally depended on the power of human and such animals as horses and cattle; while in the age of steam engines, fossil energy replaced manpower and the foundation for production was thus shifted from manpower to mechanical power. Following that, the mechanical revolution made fossil fuel become human’s major energy source.

Looking back on human history so far, the most important event in my opinion is the third industrial revolution. During the revolution taking place in the 1940s and 1950s, the first computer was invented in 1947, which took up an area even larger than this hall and was extremely power-consuming. Despite that, it’s exactly this computer that started the information age.

Of course, besides computer and the information revolution it triggered, technological advances in the third industrial revolution also include the breakthroughs in atomic energy, biotechnology, and aerospace. It is a period of integrated advancement in human society. However, physics remains the highlight. That’s because physical breakthroughs have led to the advent of chips, and high-tech devices like iPhone. In the US nowadays, the value of industrial output based on quantum mechanics accounts for 70% of the total. This figure is staggering. It indicates that all the devices that carry information today are based on quantum mechanics, without which the production of chips is out of question. In addition to chips, the LED light bulbs, light emitting diodes (LED), triodes (the major components of telephone integrated circuit), and some other small items in our daily life are all made from silicon dioxide with laser ablation. It is also closely related to the development of quantum mechanics, without which laser would not exist.

So I believe classical physics is the primary foundation for the third industrial revolution, which distinguishes it from the previous ones. And quantum mechanics, the foundation and fundamental law of physics, was not discovered until 100 years ago.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution Just Around the Corner

Now I’d like to make some predictions about the fourth industrial revolution. Physics is surely not the only driving force for an industrial revolution. However, I as a physicist believe all the revolutions with great leaps in human history are closely linked to the basis of physics: the first and the second industrial revolutions are related to Newtonian mechanics, and all the components invented in the third one have something to do with quantum mechanics.

As for the upcoming fourth industrial revolution, quantum mechanics will become an even more powerful propeller than in the previous revolutions. The 5-bit photon computer invented recently is already a tremendous breakthrough. If a 50-bit quantum computer is invented in the future, its computing power will surpass that of any other super computers nowadays.

Then what is quantum computing? It is not something easy to explain from the perspective of physics. You may imagine a maze in which players are asked to enter from the left-bottom corner and exit from the right-top corner, and there is only one way out. The players can come up with various possible routes, but in fact, all except one of them will lead to dead ends. In the case of quantum computing, it is like pumping water into the maze. Water pumped in from the left bottom can access all the routes at the same time, so the feasible one to the right top will be found at one go. When the dead ends block the water, the correct path will at the same time lead to the destination. This is a visual way to demonstrate quantum computing, which carries out simultaneous computing processes based on quantum mechanics and sorts out the correct results.

Quantum computing has been a hot issue these days: Mark Zuckerburg explained quantum mechanics to his daughter and many large Internet and technology companies have invested in this field as well. The possible prospects of quantum mechanics have increasingly become the focus of concern. More and more people begin to think about the potential application of quantum computers. However, it is still surely difficult for us to imagine their influence on the human society. Just like in 1947, shortly after the birth of the first computer in the US, people could never imagine the advent of smart phones later.

But there is one thing we can be sure about here and now: quantum computing will absolutely bring world-shaking changes. Why is that? Let’s say we try to figure out whether a random 300-digit number can be resolved. It may take 15 years for an ordinary computer to do the processing, compared to 1 second for a quantum computer. So, I believe that the fourth industrial revolution will also be a revolution of the information age—the age is not coming to an end, and AlphaGo is merely its beginning. When quantum computers are available in the real sense, the information age will usher into a brand-new stage called, as I see it, “Strong AI” period.

What does “strong AI” refer to? As far as I am concerned, AlphaGo is not counted as strong AI yet, for it only defeats human in a single aspect. Cars, for instance, run faster than humans, but can a car perform other tasks apart from transportation? No. And it is also true of AlphaGo. Strong AI, by contrast, can handle all kinds of tasks as humans can.

In fact, I think that our brains are also capable of quantum computing. For instance, there exists an element called calcium phosphate in our neurons and its quanta can last for over one minute and perform quantum computing. Additionally, I also have an intuitive judgement: while the existing computers and telephones can output one result for one command, humans may produce multiple answers for a single command. Of course, some people consider the human brain as an extremely complicated classical computer, whose computing results cannot be predicted only because its program has not been figured out.

However, although classical computers are sophisticated and currently hard to predict, it is still predictable in principle. All we need is to understand the programming, and AlphaGo is an example. Hence, the difference between humans and classical computers lies in that humans are unpredictable. Even if the unpredictable accounts for only 1% of the total, human beings are different from the predictable programmed computers.

On such a basis, I want to put forward a more specific prediction: if we double Moore’s Law every year and bring it into the field of quantum computing, it will take around 27 years to achieve 100 billion qubits. In other words, in around 2300, Moore’s Law for ordinary computers will be invalid and their improvement will have to cease. However, maybe in 2044, the accumulated qubits will trigger off the fourth industrial revolution.

In this sense, it can be seen that there is a one-century interval between each industrial revolution in human history.

So let’s wait and see what happens. Thank you!