Some tech enthusiasts grumble and gripe about the [according to their perception] lack of innovation in computing this past decade. While you can argue about the various merits and demerits of Intel's x86 microarchitecture, there is no denying that technology and innovation will move forward in the future. Massive leaps in computing power have taken place in just a few decades. Is it possible that a computer scientist in the 1940's would have any inkling what computers would look like in 2010? What might the future of computing be? One interesting proposition is the prospect of quantum computing.
Quantum computing is not the perfect solution that the name might imply. Sure, quantum physics allows us to generate electricity and cause massive destruction in the form of nuclear weapons, but would you be surprised that a quantum computer would be no faster than a current conventional computers of today [in certain applications]? It's true, or at least theorized to be so. However, for certain kinds of problems - such as simulating enviromental changes, simulating mass evacuation plans, and searching databases - quantum computers would represent a drastic increase in performance over current computers - and perhaps most worringly, cryptographic uses.
What's different about a quantum computer? In a conventional computer, transistors store bits of information, and each bit has a value of either 1 or 0. Turn a transistor on, for instance, and it represents a 1. Turn it off and it holds a 0. With a quantum computer, the classical bit gives way to something called a quantum bit, or qubit. A qubit is not stored in a transistor but in some quantum mechanical state such as a photon polarization, electron spin, or in even more exotic degrees of freedom. According to the superposition principle of quantum mechanics, at any given moment the spin of an electron can be both up and down with specified “amplitudes.” Amplitudes are the key because they represent the square roots of probabilities. Put qubits together and they can hold a combination of 2^n values with arbitrary amplitudes. A quantum computer’s ability to manipulate amplitudes can make it exponentially faster than traditional computers - fast enough, for instance, to crack today’s most secure encryption algorithms. Nobody knows exactly when we can expect the first quantum computer, but Microsoft Researcher Dr. Michael Freedman and Station Q has mad a few breakthroughs en route to quantum computing development. Microsoft News Center recently had a very informative interview with Dr. Freedman and I think it's worth taking a look if you want to know more about quantum computers and the people who are working on them.
Quantum computing certainly looks like the next frontier but even more exciting to me is Dr. Freedman's statement: Many of the famous applications are cryptographic. But that will be a footnote compared to the revolution in the design of complex materials. It’s very difficult to simulate the properties of any material — even something as simple as water. But, if you use a quantum computer to simulate a quantum system, these computations happen much, much faster. We think a quantum computer might be able to help design materials not yet invented, engineer exotic magnets, facilitate spintronics and advanced engineering and design pharmaceuticals.
Hopefully, the power of these new machines will realized much sooner than later but only time will tell.
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