Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Quantum Computing

The news likes to report about Quantum computing as if it were a device that you could plug in to your wall, attach to your monitor and keyboard, and then immediately begin typing away at. This is wrong.
Quantum computing is an emerging technology that we're still working on the theoretical level. Like DNA "computers," which you can't type on, because they're a beaker full of bio-goo that they leave overnight to solve whatever problem, and then take apart the goo the next day. The goo often finds interesting solutions to complex problems, but it's not going to show up on a screen.
Similarly, existing quantum computers are series of atoms entangled in a very complicated way such as to allow researchers to "read" their properties, and "write" them by changing them. If the technology is ever commercialized, it'll be an add on card for your existing computer, not a brand new machine.
Quantum computing's main advantage is taking advantage of "superposition," in which atoms can have more than one state at the same time, but this collapses if meddled with. And atoms being small as they are, even "reading" their position collapses them. So they specialize in problems where the correct solution can be verified, but there's no better way to find it than to just guess until you get it. You basically make a superposition, guessing at every possible answer at the same time, and the superposition collapses to form the correct answer, which you then verify with traditional silicon computing.
As of this writing, the most powerful quantum computer in the world had only 7 "qubits." basically, 7 linked atoms that could have about 49 distinct states. This is nowhere near being able to do any sort of practical thing, but you have to crawl before you can walk. They're working on one with 9 qubits, but to do anything practical, you'd need at least a hundred, and preferably a thousand.
Also, we'd have to have some way of reliably electronically "reading" and "writing" the atoms. Your quantum computer isn't going to be very valuable to you if you have to hire a quantum physicist just to learn what the results even are.

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