Quantum Leap: Computer to 'Make Computer History'

ByABC News
February 9, 2007, 7:17 PM

Feb. 12, 2007 — -- "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."

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."