Quantum Computing Hype Meets Reality

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Quantum Computing Hype Meets Reality

The hyperbole surrounding quantum computers has steadily increased over the 30-plus years since Richard Feynman proposed the idea. But what exactly is a quantum computer?

A conventional computer uses on-off switches to store information. On equals one, and off equals zero. With those two digits, any type or amount of information can theoretically be stored and manipulated using a binary counting system.

A quantum computer employs the quantum mechanical properties of atomic and sub-atomic particles to do the same thing. When an electron is put in the presence of a magnetic field, it spins. If the direction of the field is flipped, the electron reverses the direction of its spin. This directionality of these so-called Q-bits, which is referred to as up spin or down spin, can be used exactly like the on-off state of a transistor in a conventional computer.

According to an article in Fortune1 magazine, a quantum computer's up-down electrons, however, can be both off and on at the same time — or anything in between. The term used to describe this effect is "superposition."

As the number of Q-bits rises, their ability to store data grows exponentially. For example, if you wanted to have the same power as a quantum computer with just 300 Q-bits, you would need to equip a classical computer with transistors equal to the number 10 raised to the 90th power. That could not be done, since there are not even that many atoms in the entire universe.

This mind-boggling potential holds out the promise of a massively parallel computer that could do an almost infinite number of calculations simultaneously, even while the device remained extremely small.

It is common in the popular press to say that quantum computers will be able to solve exceptionally difficult mathematical problems, including those known as NP-complete problems. An example of an NP-complete problem is forecasting the weather. Even with today's most sophisticated technology, we can't predict the weather very well. That's because predicting the weather accurately would require calculating the state of every molecule of air and water in any weather system and projecting out to all of its possible future states.2

The subject of quantum computers has resulted in some confusion, because it would seem logical that a faster computer could solve any kind of problem faster...

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