The 'Holy Grail' of Technology

Jack Simpson

Head of Marketing and Communications

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The possibility of quantum computers becoming a reality in the next decade or so has featured repeatedly in tech news of the last week. Quantum computers are said to defy common sense and had been thought of as science-fiction by many, until recent developments proved otherwise.

The computers of today obey the laws of classical physics, but a quantum computer seeks to exploit the physics of very small particles, such as atoms. Last week, it was reported that researchers at the University of New South Wales have created single-atom transistors, a hint towards the possible future of quantum computing.

All techies will be aware that classical computers store “bits” of information in things like transistors (the basic building blocks of complex electronic devices) and each bit has a value of either 0 or 1. Quantum computers store information in “qubits”. Operating in superposition, it exists in all states simultaneously so not just 0 and 1 but also every possible state in between. It would theoretically be able to access every piece of information at the same time, meaning that a 250qubit computer would contain more data than there are particles in the universe, it really is mind-blowing stuff!

Quantum decoherence means that as qubits are vulnerable to interference from heat, radiation and defective materials, you can’t trust the answers they provide. Being able to produce a qubit of sufficient “integrity” that you can actually trust the results has eluded scientists for decades, which is what makes these recent developments so exciting.

Engadget reported yesterday that IBM is due to present three new records of integrity that could change everything. It has developed methods of easily building, maintaining and even increasing the integrity of a qubit to the point that it’s now very close to the minimum standard required by the research community. Part of the revelation is that IBM built the qubits using traditional commercial chip fabrication technology, meaning that if the minimum standard is reached, it would be possible to mass-produce the technology very rapidly at scale.

As Web Applications started to get excited by the astronomical implications this could have in many fields, reading an article on The Register brought us back down to earth with the fact that integrity is just one of the many problems with quantum computing. Others include how to scale up from individual qubits, how anyone could ever afford to build a quantum computer, how you would program it and how to get the answers out of it once it’s done with its insanely complicated computations. So not too much to figure out then?!

Nevertheless, these revelations show new hope that quantum computing is possible and according to Mark Ketchen, manager of the physics of information group at IBM’s Watson Research Centre, could become a reality in as little as 15 years. The impact this could have on the world is unimaginable – having an all knowing computer that can solve the unsolvable would have serious effects on science, technology, medicine and security.