There are things that classical computers can’t do, no matter how many transistors they cram into it, and that’s where the unique and downright weird properties of quantum computers come into play. The classical computer can only be, like a light switch, on or off, but quantum qubits can be on and off at the same time. While a bit can be 1 or 0, a qubit can be 1 and 0 at the same time.
By: Paulino Betancourt
Quantum computing is one of those future technologies, like nuclear fusion power or self-driving cars, that seem like something out of science fiction books. When researchers are able to develop stable and reliable quantum machines, they will be able to drive the current pace of computing.
The road to a quantum computer has been long and complex, combining some of the most difficult problems in quantum science with the difficulties of building computer hardware. How long the road to quantum computing has been and how important it will be to reach its destination was recognized last Tuesday when the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three researchers, whose work has laid “the foundations for a new era of quantum technology”, as expressed by the Committee that awarded the distinction.
The Nobel Prize in Physics recognized the legacy of Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and the experimental work of Anton Zeilinger, for their contributions to “quantum entanglement.” This being a component of currently available technologies, such as GPS or high-resolution medical imaging, it plays a leading role in the quantum information processing industry. Although this phenomenon, not at all intuitive, is still a topic of research in physics.
What were the contributions of the winners? John F Clauser, showed in 1972 that pairs of photons (energy particle) were entangled, underlining that they behave as a single unit, even when separated by great distances. While, Alain Aspect promoted that work a decade later and in 1998, Anton Zeilinger explored the entanglement of three or more particles. Together, as the Nobel Committee put it, they paved the way for the development of a “new technology based on quantum information.”
The best way to understand a quantum computer, aside from spending several years doing graduate school in physics, is to compare it to the kind of machine I’m writing this article on, a classical computer. My laptop is powered by a chip consisting of 7.6 billion transistors. Each of these transistors can represent the “1” or “0” of binary information, a bit. The large number of transistors is what gives the machine its computing power. Seven billion six hundred million transistors packed into a chip of 75 square millimeters is a lot, and more if we compare it with the first computer that had only 800 transistors.
But, there are things that classical computers can’t do, no matter how many transistors they cram into it, and that’s where the unique and downright weird properties of quantum computers come into play.
Instead of bits, they process information using qubits, which can represent “0” and “1” simultaneously. How do they do that? Qubits make use of the quantum mechanical phenomenon known as “superposition,” like Schrödinger’s cat, which can be alive and dead at the same time until the box is opened.
The classical computer can only be, like a light switch, on or off, but quantum qubits can be on and off at the same time.
The computing power of the classical computer increases linearly with the addition of each transistor, but the power of a quantum computer increases with the addition of each new qubit. That’s because of another property of quantum mechanics called “entanglement,” where the properties of each qubit can be affected by the other qubits in the system, allowing you to test many possibilities at the same time.
For example, if you’re working in finance and you want to know which portfolio has the highest return, you have to look at many, many different cases and then find the best one. And this is something that a quantum computer does, because it essentially allows you to compute many things at the same time, which is noticeably more powerful. All this means that the power of a quantum computer far exceeds classical computing.
For the last few years I have been following the work that researchers at IBM are doing, along with their competitors at companies like Google and Microsoft., with start-ups around the world striving to power the next big leap in computing, spanning everything from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence to new materials design. Provided, of course, that they can make these computers work.
PAULINO BETANCOURT | @p_betanco
Researcher, professor at the Central University of Venezuela, member of the National Academy of Engineering and Habitat
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