Quantum Leap: Computer to 'Make Computer History'

"Quantum Computing." It's one of those things that bring a sparkle to the eyes of propellerheads -- and make the rest of us just scratch our heads.

But it's been a holy grail in the arcane world of supercomputers -- and a Canadian firm claims it will be unveiling one on Tuesday. Nevermind that most engineers thought quantum computers were decades away.

D-Wave Systems, Inc., based near Vancouver, is the company that's been working on the project. Its machine is described as a computer that can perform 64,000 calculations at once.

Following the odd laws of quantum mechanics, the digital "bits" that race through its circuits will be able to stand for 0 or 1 at the same time, allowing the machine, eventually, to do work that is orders of magnitude more complex than what today's computers can do.

"There are certain classes of problems that can't be solved with digital computers," said Herb Martin, the firm's CEO, over a decidedly-noisy digital cell phone. "Digital computers are good at running programs; quantum computers are good at handling massive sets of variables."

Coming Soon to a Store Near You?

So will you or I be able to have one soon? Will it come as a laptop?

The answers, for now, are no, and no. The current prototype, says Martin, is as big as a good-sized freezer, and a lot colder. It uses superconducting circuits that have to be refrigerated, close to absolute zero. That's the kind of temperature at which electrical resistance fades nearly to nothing (think of the heat generated by a conventional laptop), so that massive calculations can be done.

What sorts? Martin says, for instance, that a quantum computer could be used to design genetically based drugs (remember that the DNA in every human cell has 3 billion "base pairs," or "rungs" on that famous helical ladder).

Or it could be used by companies to manage their supply chains. "Think," says Martin, "of a company that has 40 factories and makes a million different parts. That's a lot to keep track of."

Quantum computers could also have major uses in the security world. Since 9/11, governments and companies have gotten heavily into biometrics, building massive databases of pictures, fingerprints, and other complex measures of people they want to track. If someone on a terrorism watch list passes a security checkpoint at an airport, a quantum computer could presumably be very fast at comparing his or her picture to the massive databases of pictures stored by security agencies.

Reality Check

Will this actually happen any time soon? Much of the computing world is skeptical. Major companies, such as IBM and NEC, have done years of research without results so far.

Even Seth Lloyd of MIT, a computer scientist whose research is cited as a major source of D-Wave's work, has been quoted as saying that while he's happy they're trying, he'll wait to see what they've done.

So don't go online in search of a quantum machine any time soon. But don't be surprised if, at some time in the future, you can go online to a search engine which just happens to be powered by this very strange technology.

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