Quantum Supremacy:How the Quantum Computer Revolution Will Change Everything

Date Reviewed
March 29th 2024

Despite using easy to understand lay language, theoretical physicist and author Michio Kaku was unsuccessful in giving me much more comprehension of quantum physics, even with my multiple readings of the key parts.

However, that doesn't seem the goal of his book 'Quantum Supremacy:How the Quantum Computer Revolution Will Change Everything'. Instead the goal seems to be outlining all the aspects of life, including life itself, that will be changed by this dramatic increase in computing power. He is inviting the reader into the complex tiny world responsible for much that is in the environment and illustrating how the tools to reveal it are evolving. I don't begin to understand how such a computer works and this book has not helped. But then I don't understand how a whole flock of machines work, but am satisfied that somebody does and that machine could help me. So the book basically directs readers to areas that may be revolutionized by such a computer.

The cut-and-poison of organs and systems representing dramatic medical efforts to save and heal people will be replaced by manipulating atoms, molecules and cells and as such the very origins of health problems.

The key is that quantum computer capacity and speed will increase over the most powerful currently in regular use not by simple multiples but by exponentials of 20. China has claimed to have used a quantum computer to do a calculation taking “200 seconds that would take a digital computer half a billion years”. Google had earlier claimed 200 seconds instead of 10,000 years. The Chinese have also claimed 100 trillion times faster than an ordinary supercomputer. It is claimed that the difference is not just speed, but ability at tasks not possible with other computers, including cracking any codes, a terrifying prospect for companies.

These computers will spell the end of the 'age of silicon'.

With this amount of capacity and working at the molecular, if not atomic level, the computer will make scientific trials and experiments unnecessary because it will be able calculate all the possible outcomes in advance.

Ultimately it is the degree of complexity these computers will be able to deal with in a short time that is the key to the revolution they will bring.

Kaku describes the research into this field almost as though it were an arms race with all of the scientifically advanced countries participating, experimenting with a variety of systems.

Somewhat surprising to me, the author mentions, out of about 8 efforts, that two different Canadian companies are participating in this race, one with a “photonic quantum computer” and the other “D-wave quantum computer”.

Somewhat consoling about my difficulty understanding quantum physics is that, although explored through the 20th century, it never made my physics classes. Physics then was 'classic' physics, that epitomized by Isaac Newton. It was physics that was demonstrable in everyday life. Quantum is basically learned in graduate courses in advanced physics.

'Quantum' is physics of the extremely small and not directly available to human senses.

Kaku gives a brief description of the history of quantum physics from the earliest idea presented by Max Planck at the turn of the 20th century. He follows that up with the major debate highlighted by the face to face standoff between Albert Einstein (against) and Niels Bohr (for) over the quantum theory. He describes it as though a heavyweight championship boxing match, a rare phenomenon in the arcane world of physics.

The author has short profiles of many of the physicists involved in quantum physics through the 20th century.

Many of the issues he deals with in the 300 pages might fall under the category of 'silver bullet'. They include cure cancer, feed the world and immortality. However, making nuclear fission a feasible energy source seemed to me the greatest. For decades it has been a tempting idea, but often met with the science joke that “it is 20 years away and always will be”. The key that Kaku sees as needing to make it work is keeping the sun-hot plasma from touching its container. The trick has been balancing the magnetic forces that keep it in place. Kaku believes that a quantum computer will enable responses quick enough to do that.

Of course creating immortality would be a silver bullet, but that issue is not close enough to imagine the problem to be solved.

His concluding chapter, “A Day in the year 2050”, I thought his weakest. He describes a scenario in that future time that sounds like the “Jetsons” in terms of facilities and conveniences. But I think he makes a mistake, that many of those trying to see the future make. And that is creating a modern environment, but ignoring the idea that by that time people's values and expectations will also have evolved and those may not be the things desired or needed. He has people stuck in the past, while the technology has moved forward.

In his imagined story, he has a young man, an engineer, being awarded a prize for a discovery. A young woman, a journalist, is interviewing him and love is kindled. From probably the 1970s, most journalistic interviews were conducted over the phone, now of course that has been augmented to video conferencing, so while a face to face interview is possible that may be even less likely than now. Further who is reading journals then?

From a practical reader point of view, Kaku's short chapters, with many subheads, makes it easier to digest the material and stop and restart reading. Given the opaque nature of much of the material, to my surprise, I remained enthralled.

An unusual high frequency of public library availability of this book may suggest low reader enthusiasm to tackle it. Normally new books are so popular that you can't get a renewal or at best only one. I think I renewed this one four times and the library was still not clamouring for its return.



Because I have tried to highlight many of Kaku's prognostications, this section may seem a series of disjointed facts and ideas, but they may stimulate imagination.

While computers have caused a revolution, even shock to society, Kaku predicts this one will dwarf early ones. Hence scientists are following the development of these computers closely as is business.

Just to put size into perspective the current computer chip, the size of a fingernail, can contain a billion transistors. This may be the limit of silicon.

He indicates what is confusing to many lay people, and that is the vastly different rules in quantum versus the classical physics we are used to. “Atom spin” and the infinite ways this can be, seems to be where things are. The same atom can be in two places at the same time. This is intellectually disconcerting to me.

And where electronic computers have bits, supercomputers have quibits.

A quantum computer with 100 quibits is two to the 100th power, more powerful than a supercomputer with one quibit.

Coherence fragility, controlling the atoms, is a main obstacle in these computers.

Much of the early chapters of the book deal with the scientists and their arguments for and against the new theories and descriptions of the movement of electrons and how central they are to modern, especially computer, electronics.

Chemistry will be revolutionized through quantum computers being able to model molecules and chemicals to determine how they will react without needing experiments. This may also lead to refinement of pharmaceuticals.

The early 20th century battle over the quantum theory illustrated the idea that science opponents are less likely to be convinced of new theories. Instead they die and the next group comes in with only the experience with the new.

Kaku talks about the physics of the macroworld, basically classical, versus microworld where the atom. with its different laws of physics, is the size to focus on. And this leads to nanotechnology and the idea of a robot so small it circulates in the bloodstream.

Along with this are nanomaterials such as graphene where a sheet of it is the thickness of its atoms. It is the strongest material known.

One of the obstacles for quantum computers is that many designs require cooling to as near as possible to absolute zero. Giving hope is that photosynthesis is a quantum reaction, as is fixing nitrogen and they occur at about room temperature.

Electrons exist in parallel states in quantum mechanics and this is extrapolated to the existence of parallel universes. Things do get complicated and inconceivable, given the 'regular physics' we have lived by. Quantum computers may actually calculate in several universes, whereas a traditional computer is only in one.

Until the 1990s quantum computers were for theorists. Then they got on the agendas of major governments. It was the fear that such computers could break any code.

Photonic computers take up more space, but don't require cooling and light moves 10 times faster than electrons. This may lead to lower error rates.

The quantum computer comes in “when the simplest molecular processes overwhelm digital computers.” This can relate to unravelling the mysteries of life. The complexity is made by the “billions of codes hidden within a DNA molecule”.

Kaku says there are chemical processes that can only be understood at the quantum/molecular level and possibly revealing many of the mysteries of life. This is largely beyond the capacity of digital computers. Photosynthesis is one of the most important processes to understand since it creates about 15,000 tons of biomass per second as well as the atmosphere on the earth.

Nitrogen fixing is a Microsoft target using a quantum computer to uncover the mystery of this process, which would lead to easier fertilizing of soils.

A way to break the bonds of the stable carbon dioxide may be used to reduce the deleterious effects of GHGs. Photosynthesis is an example of that being done.

Radiation from radioactive decay heats up the centre of the earth and drives continental drift. The radiation moves through matter in a process call 'quantum tunnelling'. A volcano is a product of this tunnelling. 

And a reason why fossil fuels are persisting is that while the best batteries can store about 200 watt-hours per kilogram of energy, gasoline can store 12,000.

In the future, says Kaku, the best chemicals for batteries may be determined by simulations in a quantum computer. Again trial and error testing can be avoided in favour of “virtual experiments”.

He calls the declining cost of renewable energy “agonizingly slow” and storage is a big issue. Currently lithium is the ruling battery metal and that it is lighter than other metals is a contributing factor.

Lithium-ion may be replaced by lithium-air offering 10 times more energy, he adds.

In the book, he details much of the active battery technology research.

He delves into health and lifespan citing sewage systems and increased sanitation adding 15 to 20 years to a base of 30 and antibiotics and vaccines another 10 to 15, further augmented by nutrition and surgery.

Antibiotics, a crucial weapon in the physician's bag, are loosing their potency faster than they can be replaced. This provides another situation where a quantum computer could evaluate potential candidates, eliminating costly and long trials. Kaku points out modelling a penicillin molecule would take 10 to the 86 bits of memory, far beyond any digital computer. A similar scenario may be possible for vaccines.

In addition, quantum computers may help in the early detection of epidemics through analyzing data in sewer systems, again through the prodigious memory. Further they could help in analyzing the molecular structure of the virus. Damage from viruses is done at the molecular level of cells.

The author discusses cancer and its susceptibility to odour detection, especially that of dogs, which have about 50 times as many odour receptors as humans. And “microsensors 200 times more sensitive than a dog's nose” have been developed.

Kaku says that quantum computers better match AI (artificial intelligence) than digital computers. However, he doesn't address the growing fear of where AI might go. And it seems it would go there better with quantum, again based on more memory and much faster calculating speed. Kaku says AI is now limited by lack of computer power (in digital computers).

One continuing limitations of the digital computer so far is that it cannot be programmed with 'common sense'. So it can't understand some things that seem simple to humans.

Quantum computers can make many calculations at one time, where digital is one at a time. The advantage will manifest in machine learning, pattern recognition, search engines and robotics.

One of the big developments on the horizon is how “the structure of proteins allows them to perform functions in the body, leading to a complete description of bodily functions, and later to create “better” proteins. This may provide medical breakthroughs in incurable diseases caused by “misfolded” proteins”.

He talks of the Alzheimers/dementia issue which currently claims one in three seniors in the U.S. and is likely to hit half of seniors who make it to their 80s. Misfolded amyloid proteins may begin decades before the disease manifests. Quantum computers might be able to correct issues at the molecular level.

The most dramatic health possibilities he refers to in connection with quantum computers, is effecting the molecular basis of life to “solve the problem of aging”. Effectively energy comes in from the outside to effect the chaos of entropy (molecular, genetic and cellular errors), which is “aging”. Circumstances are such that repair fails to keep up with the errors.

While there doesn't seem to be a route to renew all cells, growing specific organs outside the body may become possible, he says.

“The key is that quantum computers will be able to attack the aging process in the arena in which it takes place: at the molecular level.”

However, going forward a certain picture of individuals may be created from records left and digitized or eventually stored in quantum computers. This may be a kind of digital immortality offered in a holographic form. 

Kaku devotes a chapter to nuclear fusion for electricity. With one gram of 'heavy hydrogen' producing 90,000 kilowatts of electricity, or the equivalent of 11 tons of coal, there is little better “fuel”.

Containing the plasma in suspension in the generator is one of the major stumbling blocks in fusion. The plasma is created by heating the hydrogen to many millions of degrees (hotter than the sun). While we are used to solids, liquids and gases as the states of matter, plasma, the fourth, is the most common form in the universe (all the stars). Lightning bolts are the form of plasma we are familiar with. For a fusion reactor the hydrogen would be heated by an electric current. He doesn't go into how much energy this would take.

Currently the International Thermonucler Reactor (ITER)experimental has reached a yield of seventy per cent of the power taken to get the reaction. The current goal is to get it to 10 times. Getting to one is hoped for 2025. The next stage is planned for completion in 2050.

I found Kaku's succinct description of star formation enlightening. A star starts with “a ball of hydrogen that is compressed evenly by gravity. As it gets smaller and smaller, temperatures begin to rise, until it hits many millions of degrees and the hydrogen begins to fuse and the star ignites.”

Since this process is relatively easy it occurs often and there are billions of stars.

The quantum computer, as well as possibly balancing the magnetic force in a reactor, may also be used to investigate and test virtual designs without having to build a reactor. They may also help in the search for superconducting materials.

He broaches the subject of the earth being hit by a large meteor and how some scientists have used the idea to advocate having another planet as a safe haven. Currently there is an asteroid 1000 feet in diameter expected to brush earth's atmosphere in April 2029.

Quantum computers may be the tool to better detail the trajectory of these hazards and render expected effects and damage. They will be needed to categorize stars and maybe more importantly planets, their atmospheres, chemical composition, temperature, geology wind patterns and other relevant information, says Kaku. These computers may be able to detect patterns beyond the capability of digital computers. As an example, a computer may be able to detect whether something purported to be written by Shakespeare actually was, by the letters used, or analyze seemingly chaotic signals from space.

And another safety issue is to determine an imminent solar flare which could set civilization back hundreds of years through destroying most, if not all, electrical systems. Food preservation could be destroyed leading to disintegration of social order. Amenities in urban areas would not work. Prior to the electric age, flares were barely a concern. Preparations could be made for such an event, but it is not the kind of 'maybe' precaution humankind has been predisposed to make.

Worse than a solar flare is a gamma-ray burst releasing the most energy since the big bang. Such an event has occurred in “our neighbourhood” or we wouldn't have elements like gold, copper, zinc, mercury and cobalt. The limit of our sun is the creation of iron, which is dominant in the centre of the earth.

He expects that quantum computers “will be able to explain the entire history of stars”

The author suggests a “new” physics may be needed when both Einstein's theories and quantum theory fail to explain what happens when a massive star collapses gravitationally.

And he discusses another one of the puzzles hypothesized by physics, but beyond our senses to detect....dark matter and dark energy 'known' to be the major constituents of the universe. As in, most stars are dark.

Latest data for the universe suggest 68 per cent dark energy, 27 per cent dark matter, hydrogen and helium 5 per cent and higher elements 0.1 per cent. And almost nothing is known about the biggies except that they may hold galaxies together and there are efforts to map it.

He briefly discusses the large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the investigation of what protons are made of. The energy used there is powerful magnets. It “hurls protons at 14 trillion volts” and is the largest scientific machine ever built.

But on the horizon is a new larger one called the Future Circular Collider which may produce 100 trillion electron volts. It may be able to create the conditions when the universe was born, he adds.

While I found his scenario for 2050 failing to consider how humans and their values may change, still his life's work and areas studied make it worth considering.

One interesting idea is the analyzing of sewer water from each home as a way health is monitored.

And the speed and information of a quantum computer will make the self driving car more viable and accurate.

Instantaneous portable translation may be possible reducing much of the practical need to learn many languages.