Brave New World of Quantum Computing — James Bond of atoms, molecules and wave functions

Will we ever have the amount of computing power we need or want? If, as Moore’s Law states, the number of transistors on a microprocessor continues to double every 18 months, the year 2020 or 2030 will find the circuits on a microprocessor measured on an atomic scale. And the logical next step will be to create quantum computers, which will harness the power of atoms and molecules to perform memory and processing tasks. Quantum computers have the potential to perform certain calculations significantly faster than any silicon-based computer.

You don’t have to go back too far to find the origins of quantum computing. While computers have been around for the majority of the 20th century, quantum computing was first theorized less than 30 years ago, by a physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory. Paul Benioff is credited with first applying quantum theory to computers in 1981. Benioff theorized about creating a quantum Turing machine. Most digital computers, like the one you are using to read this article, are based on the Turing Theory.

Qubits in superposition of states

Today’s computers, like a Turing machine, work by manipulating bits that exist in one of two states: a 0 or a 1. Quantum computers aren’t limited to two states; they encode information as quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in superposition of 0 and 1. Qubits may represent atoms, ions, photons or electrons and their respective control devices that are working together to act as computer memory and a processor. Because a quantum computer can contain these multiple states simultaneously, it has the potential to be millions of times more powerful than today’s most powerful supercomputers.

However there is a problem with this — that of ‘observation dilemma’ originating from the famous Uncertainty principle.

Quantum entanglement (artist’s rendition)

In the strange world of quantum computers, if you try to look at the subatomic particles, you could bump them, and thereby change their value. A quantum system collapses into a classical system when it is directly ‘observed’. So, if you look at a qubit in superposition to determine its value, the qubit will assume the value of either 0 or 1, but not both (effectively turning your spiffy quantum computer into a mundane digital computer). To make a practical quantum computer, scientists have to devise ways of making measurements indirectly to preserve the system’s integrity. To solve the problem, quantum computers also utilize another aspect of quantum mechanics known as quantum entanglement. In quantum physics, if you apply an outside force to two atoms, it can cause them to become entangled, and the second atom can take on the properties of the first atom. So if left alone, an atom will spin in all directions. The instant it is disturbed it chooses one spin, or one value; and at the same time, the second entangled atom will choose an opposite spin, or value. This allows scientists to know the value of the qubits without actually looking at them.

Quantum decoherence

One of the greatest challenges is controlling or removing quantum decoherence. This usually means isolating the system from its environment as interactions with the external world cause the system to decohere. However, other sources of decoherence also exist. Examples include the quantum gates, and the lattice vibrations and background nuclear spin of the physical system used to implement the qubits. Decoherence is irreversible, as it is non-unitary, and is usually something that should be highly controlled, if not avoided. Decoherence times for candidate systems, typically range between nanoseconds and seconds at low temperature. These issues are more difficult for optical approaches as the timescales are orders of magnitude shorter and an often-cited approach to overcoming them is optical pulse shaping. Error rates are typically proportional to the ratio of operating time to decoherence time, hence any operation must be completed much more quickly than the decoherence time.

Quantum cryptography

Integer factorization is believed to be computationally infeasible with an ordinary computer for large integers if they are the product of few prime numbers (e.g., products of two 300-digit primes). By comparison, a quantum computer could efficiently solve this problem using Shor’s algorithm to find its factors. This ability would allow a quantum computer to decrypt many of the cryptographic systems in use today, in the sense that there would be a polynomial time (in the number of digits of the integer) algorithm for solving the problem. In particular, most of the popular public key ciphers are based on the difficulty of factoring integers (or the related discrete logarithm problem, which can also be solved by Shor’s algorithm), including forms of RSA encryption. These are used to protect secure Web pages, encrypted email, and many other types of data. Breaking these would have significant ramifications for electronic privacy and security. Besides factorization and discrete logarithms, quantum algorithms offering a more than polynomial speedup over the best known classical algorithm have been found for several problems, including the simulation of quantum physical processes from chemistry and solid state physics, the approximation of Jones polynomials, and solving Pell’s equation. No mathematical proof has been found that shows that an equally fast classical algorithm cannot be discovered, although this is considered unlikely. For some problems, quantum computers offer a polynomial speedup. The most well-known example of this is quantum database search, which can be solved by Grover’s algorithm using quadratically fewer queries to the database than are required by classical algorithms. In this case the advantage is provable.

Quantum computers could one day replace silicon chips, just like the solid-state transistor once replaced the vacuum tube. But for now, the technology required to develop such a practical, mass-producible quantum computer is beyond our reach. Most research in quantum computing is still very theoretical. The most advanced quantum computers have not gone beyond manipulating more than few qubits, meaning that they are a far cry from practical application. However, the potential remains that quantum computers one day could perform, quickly and easily, calculations that are incredibly time-consuming on conventional computers.

The quest is on for a brave new world where atoms and molecules and wave functions may play the role of Sherlock Holmes or James Bond!