Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

A Quantum Jump for Computers?

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

A Quantum Jump for Computers?

Article excerpt

Computers are getting faster and more powerful all the time. They are also approaching their design limits. Shrinking circuits to make them run faster, explains Glanz, a staff writer for Science, also makes it harder to connect components, and increases the heat generated by electrical resistance. A different sort of obstacle may appear in the form of quantum mechanics. "At very small scales," Glanz says, "electrons behave not as point particles but as waves. And that makes them hard to handle."

Will computing then have become all that it can ever be? Not necessarily. Physicists and computer scientists recently have begun to explore the possibility that quantum mechanics, instead of being an obstacle, could be a way of taking computing into a new realm, one far removed from transistors, resistors, and wires.

By the strange laws of quantum mechanics, Folger, a senior editor at Discover, notes, an electron, proton, or other subatomic particle is "in more than one place at a time," because individual particles behave like waves. Ten years ago, Folger writes, David Deutsch, a physicist at Oxford University, argued that it may be possible to build an extremely powerful computer based on this peculiar reality. In 1994, Peter Shor, a mathematician at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, proved that, in theory at least, a full-blown quantum computer could factor even the largest numbers in seconds -- an accomplishment impossible for even the fastest conventional computer. …

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