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Quantum Computers-The Next Generation
I am reading a book by Neil Turok called “The Universe Within”. It is an interesting book written for the non-technical public describing the history of theoretical physics for the last 100 years, where it began, where it is now and where it is headed.
He describes the discovery of quantum mechanics and how promising it is in the world of theoretical physics as well as other disciplines.
Quantum mechanics is also known as quantum physics, or quantum theory and is a branch of physics that deals with physical phenomena at the atomic level. The word quantum is derived from Latin “quanta” meaning discrete amounts. It is based on observations that some physical quantities can change only in discrete amounts and not in a continuous way.
Turok talks about how quantum mechanics is being used in several different disciplines and how this field of physics is currently being applied to the next generation of computers. These will be called quantum computers and if you think today’s computers are fast, you “ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”.
Moore’s Law and Its LimitThis amazing law was postulated in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and still applies today. He noticed a pattern in computer processing technology. Today’s computers are silicon chip based and the reason they have increased in power while decreasing in size is due to Moore’s Law which states the number of transistors that can fit on a microprocessor chip doubles every 18 months. This law is best illustrated starting with computers in the 1960’s when we had massive mainframe machines like the Burroughs 6700 (the size of our living room-kitchen combined) have been transformed into the sophisticated iPhone in 2012 that fits in your shirt pocket. While Moore’s Law still applies today, it has a limit due to the eventual physical size restriction of the silicon chip. Remarkably, we will not reach this limit for approximately another 10 years.
When this limit is reached, the next generation of computation could be dominated by quantum computers. While existing computers work with ever decreasing size circuits on microchips, quantum computers will employ molecules and atoms to store information and perform calculations, and that is not all.
Quantum Computers Harness the Power of Quantum PhysicsPutting to work the power of quantum mechanics, quantum computers will be able to do certain calculations significantly faster than any of our present-day supercomputers. Our existing supercomputers are lightning fast, but they still perform calculations in sequence, one at a time. Quantum computers will have the ability to store and process data that is in more than one state at the same time, therefore they will be capable of performing numerous calculations in parallel or SIMULTANEOUSLY.
Their power lies in how they store information and access it. Today’s computers use binary code to store information, so all data is converted to 0s and 1s. Quantum computers would be able to store data using 0 and 1 as well as all fractions in between! For more information on quantum computers and quantum mechanics check out this article.
As you can imagine, performance of many calculations simultaneously has tremendous potential in numerous applications, including those required in factoring large numbers. You see, large numbers are used for encoding secret information and are used for security protection online.
For example, Turok indicates that if you write down a 400 digit number, then used one of today’s supercomputers to factor that number to its prime numbers, it would take longer than 13.8 Billion years (age of the universe). Quantum computers on the other hand, would be so fast and capable of such complex calculations simultaneously, that same task would be done in a flash!
However, a functioning quantum computer is still many years away due to the numerous problems with such sensitive machines. Among others, they are easily disrupted by interference of almost any kind, like loud noise, vibrations etc. as Dr. Michio Kaku states in this video.
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Although there are numerous problems, the researchers at IBM continue to press on and venture into the atomic realm of the quantum world for the next generation computer. If they succeed, the jump in computing power will be so astronomical it will drastically change life as we know it!
The rest of Neil Turok’s book is also fascinating and I would recommend it for anyone non-technical who is interested in the history and advancement of physics. It is truly a must-read. Neil Turok is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists and was a professor of physics at Princeton as well as Chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge. Professor Turok is currently the Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo Ontario.
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