April 27, 2012
What Exactly Is Quantum Computing?
|With so much news in the last few weeks concerning quantum computers, we thought it would be helpful to our readers to present an easy-to-follow guide to the technology. Thank you to Christopher Barnatt at Explaining Computers for the summary and video.|
Conventional computers are built from silicon chips that contain millions or billions of miniature transistors. Each of these can be turned "on" or "off" to represent a value of either "1" or "0". Conventional computers subsequently store and process data using "binary digits" or "bits".
Quantum computers, by contrast, work with "quantum bits" or "qubits".
Qubits are represented in hardware using quantum mechanical states rather than transistors that are turned "on" or "off". For example, quantum computers may use the spin direction of a single atom to represent each qubit, or alternatively the spin direction of a single electron or the polarization orientation of a photon.
Yet other quantum computing designs supercool rare metals to allow qubits to be represented by the quantum spin of a tiny magnetic field.
Due to the peculiar laws of quantum mechanics, individual qubits can represent a value of "1", "0" or both numbers simultaneously. This is because the sub-atomic particles used as qubits can exist in more than one state -- or "superposition" -- at exactly the same point in time. By attaching a probability to each of these states, a single qubit can therefore process a wide range of values. In turn, this allows quantum computers to be orders of magnitude more powerful than their conventional, purely digital counterparts.
The fact that qubits are more "smears of probability" than definitive, black-and-white certainties is exceptionally weird. Flip a coin and it cannot come up both heads and tails simultaneously, and yet the quantum state of a qubit can in some senses do just that. It is therefore hardly surprising that renowned nuclear physicist Niels Bohr once stated that "anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it!"
Another very bizarre thing is that the process of directly observing a qubit will actually cause its state to "collapse" to one or other of its superpositions. In practice this means that, when data is read from a qubit, the result will be either a "1" or a "0". When used to store potentially infinite amounts of "hidden" quantum data, qubits can therefore never be directly measured. This means that quantum computers need to use some of their qubits as "quantum gates" that will in turn manipulate the information stored and processed in other hidden qubits that are never directly measured or otherwise observed.
Because qubits can be used to store and process not just the digital values of "1" and "0", but also many shades of grey in between, quantum computers have the potential to perform massively parallel processing. This means that quantum computers will be very effective at performing tasks -- like vision recognition, medical diagnosis, and other forms of artificial intelligence processing -- that can depend on very complex pattern matching activities way beyond the capabilities of both traditional computers and most human beings.
Ultimately, few companies and individuals will ever own a quantum computer. Nevertheless, within a decade or two most companies and individuals are very likely to be regularly accessing quantum computers from the cloud. Not least this is because one of the first mainstream applications of quantum computing will be in online security and data encryption. Today, all online security systems rely on prime number calculations that quantum computers are potentially very good at indeed.
Fairly soon, anybody with a quantum computer will therefore theoretically be able to use it to crack the security on any bank account or cloud computing resource. The only way to prevent this will be to protect and encrypt all online resources with quantum security gateways. The demand for every bank and cloud provider to invest in a quantum computer -- if only for encryption purposes -- is therefore likely to skyrocket once the technology moves beyond its currently rather costly and cumbersome experimental phase.
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Tags: Christopher Barnatt, explaining computers, quantum computing, quantum physics, quantum simulator, qubits, quibits
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