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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Tricky Tech Concepts, Explained

Mark Parzygnat had just picked up food from his local big box retailer. But when he got home, there was a voicemail waiting for him: “The package that you purchased is contaminated, throw it away, we have already credited your account.” Typically, these types of consumer warnings can take days, or even weeks. But Parzygnat (who also happens to be Program Director, IBM Blockchain) got the notification in minutes—and in time, this could become the norm, thanks to blockchain technology.

Blockchain is a hot topic in tech these days—you’ve probably heard it used mostly in relation to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. If you’re like a lot of people, when new tech terms like these come up, you try to nod intelligently and change the subject before anyone figures out that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about.

But being able to define “blockchain” or “quantum computing” doesn’t just help you sound smart at networking events. These technologies can have a real impact on your daily life—so it’s well worth understanding how they work.

We talked to three resident experts from IBM who explain the future-forward concepts of blockchain, quantum computing, and the cloud—and how these technologies are making a difference in our lives right now.

Once and For All, What Is Blockchain?

Imagine a notebook with 100 pages and 80 rows per page. Suppose a company uses this notebook to track the path of each product—from raw material to manufacturer to buyer and even end-stream recycler. Each step on that path is considered a transaction. If each recorded transaction occupied one row, each notebook would hold 8,000 transactions. In blockchain terminology, each notebook is a “block” and is chained to the previous block (or notebook).

What’s important about blockchain is that the information is “append only,” which means you can only add to this long chain of information; nobody can erase the data. There are also multiple copies of the blockchain, and each transaction is immediately registered across all copies of the chain so everyone sees the same information at the same time. And equally as important, no one authority owns this information—it’s open to all involved parties, making the records transparent and nearly impossible to tamper with.

Because blockchain stores every transaction as a product moves down the supply chain, alerts like the kind Parzygnat received can be programmed and automatically relayed instead of, for example, the manufacturer having to contact the store and then every store having to comb through its records to find the customers who need to receive the alert.

OK, Now Tell Me About Quantum Computing

Speaking of information, processing today’s big data will require an entirely new kind of computing power—which is where quantum computing comes in.

Dr. Hanhee Paik, Experimental Quantum Computing Scientist at IBM, explains that while traditional computers work in binary mode (a zero or a one) to encode data using transistors, a quantum computer’s “data is encoded in a superposition of zero and one—meaning a quantum state could be between zero and one. Such computers allow us to process exponentially more information than the two-state computer.” A quantum computer’s computational units are called quantum bits, or “qubits.” Qubits are coupled via a process known as entanglement—a quantum operation that correlates qubits and makes them inseparable, harnessing more computing power.

The potential for such computing is revolutionary, Paik says, especially in the discovery of new drugs. In order to synthesize new drugs, we first need to understand how molecules naturally form. With traditional computers, simulating molecules takes massive computational resources because of the large amount of data required to encode molecules’ structural information. But quantum computers are uniquely suited to this task, not only because of their greater computational power, but because they could exactly simulate the quantum mechanical behavior of these molecules. Quantum simulations, in turn, could ultimately lead to faster time to market for the winning drug.

Paik and her colleagues have created the IBM Q Experience, a cloud-based quantum computer that gives everyone from quantum beginners to trained scientists access to run experiments on real quantum computers. Such access can also help employees in the workplace, as different industries begin to show interest in quantum computing, Paik says. Just using the IBM Q Experience for tutorials can demystify quantum computing concepts and get everyone “quantum ready.”

What Does It Mean When Something’s “in the Cloud”?

When you use an app on your phone, there is actually a lot of behind-the-scenes computing making it happen. That is where the power of cloud technology kicks in, says Iwan Winoto, Chief Architect for IBM A/NZ GBS Blockchain Practice. Essentially, instead of each company having large amounts of dedicated computing power to get work done, they can access central servers in offsite locations—on the cloud—when and if they need it.

Take the example of automated toll collection. When you drive by a tollbooth, a scanner reads the unique code in your car’s toll device and you’re on your way. Without cloud technology, every toll booth location would need to have information on-site about every single possible car that might drive by, a phenomenally expensive proposition. But with cloud technology, the scanner reads your toll device on the car, and in a matter of microseconds, relays that information to the cloud where that unique code is matched to existing records and the required toll is deducted. You can get by with only a few central locations for all that information.

“The most important thing about the cloud is that all the computers in a data center are all connected to each other,” Winoto says, “and the interconnections between all these different computers provide services to consumers like us.” The many apps consumers use every day are all reliant on cloud technology to access stored data and execute corresponding algorithms.

The cloud has also erased much of the capital cost for application building. “You can do away with having to purchase and maintain hardware,” says Winoto. “Cloud companies like IBM will charge companies to use the computing power so it’s more accessible.” This democratizes the playing field—making it easier for anyone to create the next big tech innovation.

Whether you work in tech, want to be part of an innovative company, or just want to understand the technologies that are changing lives every day, it’s well worth understanding these hot tech topics. Another major tech trend today: AI. Want to learn more about what it’s like to work with AI like IBM’s Watson? Watch the video at the top of this page, featuring IBM Watson employees!