Tim Johnson reports on latest developments in quantum computing, which seems likely to reshape how we think of technology generally and computing in particular in this century:
“We don’t know exactly where the United States is. I fervently hope that a lot of this work is taking place in a classified setting,” said R. Paul Stimers, a lawyer at K&L Gates, a Washington law firm, who specializes in emerging technologies. “It is a race.”
Pure quantum computers remain largely theoretical although simple prototypes exist. Many designs call for them to operate in super cold conditions, bordering on absolute zero, or around minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than outer space, without any noise or micro movements that can cause malfunction.
What has made them the Holy Grail for nations and private industry is that quantum computers, in theory, are magnitudes better at sifting huge amounts of data than the binary processors that power mainframes, desktops and even smart phones today. They also can process algorithms that break all widely used encryption.
Rather than doing a series of millions of computations, based on binary options of ones and zeros, quantum computers employ particles that exist in an infinite number of “superpositions” of the two states simultaneously, a condition that towering physicist Albert Einstein once labeled as “spooky.”
A quantum computer “can feel all the possibilities at once,” said Warner A. Miller, a physicist at Florida Atlantic University, who, like the others, spoke last week at a forum on quantum computing at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington.
China splashed into the news in June when it announced that a satellite and a ground station had communicated through “entangled” quantum particles. Entangled particles, even if separated by thousands of miles, act in unison. Any change in one particle will induce a change in the other, almost as if a single particle existed in multiple places at once.
Such long-distance quantum communication smashed records, occurring over 745 miles, far beyond the mile or so scientists had tested previously, and signaled Chinese mastery over a form of communication deemed ultra-secure and unhackable.
A few years ago I read Quantum Enigma, which deals with quantum physics broadly and the strange and still mysterious things—like “entanglement”—that it suggests about the natural universe.