The real quantum of computing

Dec 05 2013, 05:32 IST
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SummaryQuantum computing will be transformative in ways we cannot imagine today

Quantum computers are the next big wave, machines capable of performing certain tasks like running queries over a database at speeds that are orders of magnitude faster than current computers can achieve. A paper in the journal Nature Photonics reports the development of the biggest ever, multiplexing 10,000 photons, each functioning as a holder for a quantum data bit or qubit. This was a computer built out of laser light, and the best-performing forerunner in its class was capable of only eight qubits. The best quantum computer ever, built out of ions in a droplet of fluid, offered 14 qubits. So, does this ground-breaking project of the Australian National University and Tokyo University mean that the future is upon us? Alas, not right away.

Quantum computing will be transformative in ways that we cannot imagine today, but the great disruption is still decades away. Some researchers fear that it will remain forever on the drawing board and David Deutsch, one of the founders of the concept, believed that the quantum computer is valuable as just that: a concept which urges researchers to think about data and computing in novel ways. However, the Australian project brings quantum computing much nearer the realm of the possible. While earlier machines could solve sudokus but were intellectual midgets in the real world, this project has demonstrated scalability and could pave the way to true artificial intelligence.

But first, the essentials of quantum computing. Long before it was a physical reality, the computer was theoretically described by Alan Turing as an endless tape bearing frames, like cine film. Each frame can hold either nothing or the digits one and zero, the binary number set. Reading these in sequence, the machine picks up data and instructions on how to manipulate it. The modern computer works on the Turing model. The only structural improvement is parallel processing, which allows the machine to read and write multiple frames at once, the basic attribute of a supercomputer.

But the quantum computer represents a whole new generation. Quantum country is the land of shape-shifters. Using the property of superposition, an entity can exist in multiple states. While regular-world bits must be either zero or one, quantum bits can be both, and every value in between, in the very same moment. Just as Schrödinger’s cat was both dead and alive until the observer actually looked at it. This offers a quantum system, whose elements

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