Imagine a computer that operates almost as fast as the human body does and stores all its data, like humans, on DNA strands. This is not science fiction – it is very much science fact – as scientists recently demonstrated how to save data to DNA. In the last two years alone, quantum computer processing chips made big strides in the technological world with bigger and better processors built and in experimental use.
Quantum Mechanics Laws and Computers
Quantum mechanics provides the underlying laws and basis for building quantum computers. This is the field of science that describes how subatomic particles behave and interact, and it includes laws, theories and principles from quantum physics that describe how these mind-boggling interactions occur in the field of computing.
These theories and laws include energy quantization, packets of energy defined as quantum; the simultaneous existence of particles as both wave and particles known as wave-particle duality; Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which says that measurement collapses the subatomic particle into one of its two potential states; and the correspondence principle, developed by physicist Niels Bohr, who posited that any new theory must also apply to conventional phenomena in old physics as well, not just describe behavior of particles and waves at an atomic level in new theories.
How Quantum Computers Operate
In standard computing, computers perform by processing bits of information digitally in one of two values: zero and one, which represent either an on or off state. While computer speeds have increased exponentially since the early days of personal computers in the late '80s and early '90s, these and even supercomputers used by the military, research laboratories and colleges still have limits as to how fast they complete complex mathematical equations. Some equations take years for even supercomputers to work out because of how long some of the mathematical equations are.
Not so with a quantum computer, built on the idea of quantum bits, known as qubits, as this data can exist in multiple 0 and 1 states at the same time. The more qubits in a quantum computer, the more potential states it allows – and the faster data computations can occur. Because of quantum entanglement, what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance," qubits can operate with great distances between them without the need for wires. And because of this, what happens to one particle, happens to the other simultaneously.
What Quantum Computers Do
Quantum computers operate so fast, they can break most any encryption method in use today, including banking transactions and other methods of cybersecurity. In the hands of people with malicious intent, a quantum computer would do a lot of damage and could bring the world to its technological knees.
But in the hands of people with the right intentions, quantum computers will advance artificial intelligence capabilities unlike anything seen to date. For example, you could load the periodic table and quantum mechanics laws into the computer to design more efficient solar cells. Quantum computers can lead to fine-tuned and optimal manufacturing processes, improve electric car batteries, compute algorithms more quickly to dissolve highway traffic jams, figure out the best shipping methods and travel routes, and basically crunch data at massive speeds unheard of in even the fastest supercomputers.
Breakthroughs in Quantum Computers
Quantum computers don't just offer a more advanced type of technology; they are the basis for a whole new form of computing altogether based on the laws that underpin quantum mechanics. Compared with a standard computer outfitted with classical computing methods, a quantum computer makes a regular computer look like a tricycle compared to a super-fast race car.
Developments in qubit processors through the years include:
- 1998 Oxford University in the U.K. revealed their 2-qubit processor.
- 1998 IBM, UC Berkeley, Stanford University and MIT develop a 2-qubit processor.
- 2000 Technical University of Munich, Germany, created a 5-qubit processor.
- 2000 Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S. unveiled a 7-qubit processor.
- 2006 Institute for Quantum Computing, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and MIT create a 12-qubit processor.
- 2017 IBM shares the news of its 17-qubit processor.
- 2017 IBM unveils its 50-qubit processor.
- 2018 Google shares news of its 72-qubit processor.
Working out the Kinks
While quantum computers operate fast, right now they have no way to store data because under existing quantum mechanics rules, you can't make a duplicate, a copy or save data to the quantum system. Engineers and scientists are researching multiple ways to store quantum data; some are even considering storing data on DNA strands.
Scientists developed a method in 2017 that stores about 215 million gigabytes of information in a single DNA gram. Conventional hard drives store data in two dimensions, whereas DNA offers three dimensions and greater data storage. If a way to use DNA turned out to be workable, basically all the world's knowledge stored on DNA would fill a single room or the back of two standard pickup trucks.
The Future Is Quantum
Researchers and big players all over the world are scrambling to build the next biggest processor. IBM has put quantum computing in its cloud, making it available to most anyone who signs up to participate in its experiments.
Microsoft is in the process of integrating quantum computing into its Visual Studio platform, but other than announcing in September 2017 of its plans to base its plans on the Majorana Fermions particle – a particle that exists as its own antiparticle and that was discovered in 2012 – Microsoft remains relatively silent on its quantum computing plans.
Google has plans to dominate the quantum computer field and hopes to achieve "quantum supremacy" by building a chip that can outperform today's supercomputers with its quantum calculations.
Regardless of the advancements made in quantum computing, quantum computers won't make it into the public's hands any time soon. Working quantum computers will find their way into laboratories, think tanks and research centers first to help solve equations that would take years for supercomputers to work out.
Though many researchers predict the commercialization of quantum computers within the next four to five years, it may be a few years after that and more before quantum computers become the norm for the public.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Quantum Mechanics
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Correspondence Principle
- Columbia Engineering: What Is Quantum Computing?
- MIT News: Stars Align in Test Supporting “Spooky Action at a Distance”
- USC: USC Researchers at Forefront of Quantum Computer Development
- Qubit Counter: Qubit Counter
- Wired: What if Quantum Computers Used Hard Drives Made of DNA?
- Science Magazine: DNA Could Store All of the World's Data in One Room
- IBM Research: The Future is Quantum
- Next Platform: Quantum Computing Enters 2018 Like It's 1968
- MIT Technology Review: Google Thinks It's Close to "Quantum Supremacy." Here's What That Really Means.
About the Author
As a journalist and editor for several years, Laurie Brenner has covered many topics in her writings, but science is one of her first loves. Her stint as Manager of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in California's gold country served to deepen her interest in science which she now fulfills by writing for online science websites. Brenner is also a published sci-fi author. She graduated from San Diego's Coleman College in 1972.