Pieces of the Quantum Computing Puzzle Materialize

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Pieces of the Quantum Computing Puzzle Materialize

Late in 2005, a federal advisory committee quietly met with IBM scientists to consider a curious type of weapon: the quantum computer. Called the Information Systems Technical Advisory Committee, the panel was assembled to advise the Commerce Department about what the state-of-the-art is, and what regulations might be necessary to control the export of it.1

The concern stems from the amazing abilities of quantum computers, which could be used to break the strongest encryption codes now available. Those codes now protect everything from military secrets to consumers’ credit card numbers when they shop online.

The encryption codes we now use rely on a fairly simple idea. It’s easy to calculate the product of 73 and 79. But if you’re given just the answer — the number 5,767 — and told that it’s the product of two prime numbers, it will take a very long time to find them. And those two numbers are only two digits long.

According to an article in New Scientist,2 if the product is a 10-digit number, finding the two prime numbers that were multiplied to get that product requires about 100,000 mathematical operations. Moreover, a code just five times as long — a 50-digit number — would require 10 trillion-trillion calculations. IBM’s fastest supercomputer would take a century to solve that problem. Our present-day encryption codes are a great deal longer than 50 digits, so for the time being, they’re safe.

But in 1994, a mathematician named Peter Shor at Bell Labs came up with a scheme that cuts down on the number of calculations required to crack codes. Still, it is too large for even the fastest conventional computers. But it’s not too large for a working quantum computer. And that’s what has government officials worried. A number of separate research teams have now built quantum computers that can implement Shor’s algorithm, including IBM. Australian and Chinese researchers have done the same thing independently. The first breakthrough came in the spring of 2001, when scientists at IBM’s Almaden Research Center were able to decode the number 15 into the prime numbers three and five.

That might seem like a trivial accomplishment — a child could tell you the answer — but it was accomplished with a real quantum computer, and it demonstrated that Shor’s algorithm worked — and could work on far more complex problems.

Where does quantum computing stand today?

The short answer, according to a CNET report quoting IBM officials, is that we’re about where we were in 1947, when the transistor was invented...

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