Magazine article The Futurist

Computers Making the Quantum Leap: One Branch of Physics Holds Huge Implications for Information Technologies

Magazine article The Futurist

Computers Making the Quantum Leap: One Branch of Physics Holds Huge Implications for Information Technologies

Article excerpt

Quantum computational devices with calculating power greater than any of today's conventional computers could be just a decade away, says Bristol University physicist and electrical engineer Mark Thompson. He anticipates accelerated research and development breakthroughs in many fields of science, thanks to quantum computing.

At a January 2011 Cambridge University forum, Thompson presented two Bristol-developed quantum photonic computer chips, which process photons (particles of light). One chip used a quantum algorithm to find the prime factors of 15. Thompson says that factoring numbers is hard for conventional computers but would be relatively easy for quantum computers.

With further development, quantum processing could create powerful simulation tools for modeling many natural processes, such as superconductivity and photosynthesis. Quantum computers might also model molecular and subatomic systems with greater precision than today's computers can.

"We plan to perform calculations that are exponentially more complex, and will pave the way to quantum computers that will help us understand the most complex scientific problems," says Thompson.

A conventional computer stores information in bits, each bit either a 0 or 1. A quantum computer would store information in "qubits," and each qubit could be both 1 and 0 at the same time. David Lee Hayes, a researcher at the University of Maryland's Joint Quantum Institute, explains that a particle in a quantum state is in "superposition": It can be in more than one place at the same time. It assumes one location, however, once someone observes it.

"You can think of the observer as getting entangled with the quantum bit in a weird way," says Hayes.

Entanglement, another property of quantum particles, means that one quantum particle links telepathically to another particle far away. The second particle then exactly imitates all its partner's properties.

Since qubits can hold more than one location at once, a quantum computer could compute many more problems at once, according to Carl Williams, chief of the Atomic Physics Division at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Such a computer would be a powerful tool for pharmaceutical developers, says Williams. …

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