101010: That's the number 42 represented in binary, which is the mathematical way today's binary computers see every single piece of information flowing through them, whether it's a stock price, the latest Adele track, or a calculation to generate an MRI of a tumor. But now IBM believes it's made progress in developing quantum computers, which don't use binary coding. It is not overstating the matter to say this really may be the ultimate answer in computing machines. Quick, mop your brow and don't worry: The science isn't too hard to grasp and the revolution, when it comes, could rock the world. In a very good way.
First, a little background: Computers today, everything from the chip controlling your washing machine cycle to the screen you're reading this on, rely on binary math to work. This reduces the information in problems you ask a computer to a counting system based on just "1"s and "0"s. That translates beautifully into the electronics of a computer circuit: A "1" matches up with a little burst of electricity, a "0" means none. By shuttling trillions upon trillions of these pulses, called bits, through tiny silicon circuits and transistor gates that flip their direction or trigger an ongoing signal, the chip does math with these ones and zeros. It's a mind-bogglingly complex and very swift dance that ultimately results in Angry Birds playing on the screen of your iPad. Or, after kajillions of calculations more in a supercomputer, it results in a model predicting climate change.
Now, what if instead of simply being able to do math with ones and zeros, a computer chip could work with bits that included other numbers? You'd have to design more complex circuitry, for sure, but it means every single one of those tiny electronic calculations that's happening every millisecond could tackle more information at once, and would ultimately mean a more powerful computer that may calculate faster. Got that? Good. Now how about if instead of a one or a zero, your computer's "bits" could have any one of an infinite number of values?
That's quantum computing. Essentially this moves way beyond the well-known physics of electronics, and on into the weird and wonderful world of quantum physics—where bizarre twists of the laws of the universe mean a "bit" in a quantum computer could hold both a "1" and a "0" and any other value at the same time. That means the circuits of a quantum computer could carry out an incredibly huge number of calculations at the same time, handling more information at once than you can possibly imagine.
By using some other very strange physics (superconducting materials cooled to hundreds of degrees below freezing) IBM's research team is trying to build some of the core components of a quantum computer, and has made big progress. They're now saying they've made the quantum "bits" of information, also called qubits, live a lot longer before they essentially get scrambled. They've also worked out how to speed up the actual quantum computing circuit. IBM's progress is so impressive that they're now confident a quantum computer could be made sooner rather than later, perhaps as close as 15 years away.
Whenever it arrives, the world will change.
On a very simple level, this is because instead of asking a supercomputer to work with endless strings of "1"s and "0"s to calculate all the variables in, say, a global warming simulation (performing trillions of small math calculations one after the other to work out the dynamics of the climate over a period of hours or days) a quantum computer would be able to process much of the math at the same instant instead of sequentially. Which could reduce the compute time to a second or less. Which ultimately means better and more accurate models of the climate. Similar processing tricks could improve medical imaging, or maybe even simulations of your own particular disease's spread, which may improve treatment.
And there are many ways this tech would touch your life on an everyday basis, as well. Tasks like image recognition in Google Goggles or voice recognition in Apple's Siri rely on whisking your data off to a powerful computer, running it through a process, and sending you the results back (identifying that photo of a building as the Eiffel tower, or answering your question about the rain in Spain). These recognition problems are partly based on how good the recognition algorithm is, but also on how much time the computer can afford to spend on your problem. A quantum computer would work so swiftly that there would be no issues with spending more time trying to accurately understand your query, meaning we could reach near-perfect image and voice recognition. Perhaps even in real time, from a video feed. Imagine the sort of augmented reality tech that that would enable, with a head-up display on your view of the world constantly delivering relevant info about everything you see.
Then think about security—most encryption systems nowadays rely on clever math that means they couldn't be cracked even by a supercomputer running for years. A quantum computer could try every single combination of passwords to crack the security in a single second, which is pretty terrible news. That's going to force all sorts of changes with how we protect information, and yet it could also lead to more secure encryption, made by a quantum computer. There's also the matter of surveillance: Recognizing every word of every phone conversation on the planet and identifying every single face on every CCTV image would defeat all of today's supercomputer power...but maybe a quantum computer could do it. George Orwell would've loved that. Also on the dark side, ponder how insurance firms would use or abuse this phenomenal power ("our simulation says it's 75% more plausible the accident was your fault"), or how worried nations could simulate social dynamics to try to predict crime.
Next, on the lighter side, consider art. Or at least the movies. Look at computer graphics in films: The computers in render farms that companies like Pixar use to make Brave take hours to put together a single frame, and that limits how truly amazing the image can be made. A quantum computer could tackle a render of today's Pixar movies in a blink of an eye. And that has all sorts of implications, maybe meaning CGI actors could be even more realistic.
Which leads on to artificial intelligence—a sci-fi promise that's so far been very difficult to make real, although IBM's Watson has recently wowed everyone. What if quantum computing suddenly enabled such swift, complex calculations that a system like Watson or Siri could talk back to you convincingly, reading the nuances in your voice enough to ask, as a friend might, if you're a little stressed today and wondering if they could help?
Quantum computers won't necessarily be able to speed up solving every class of problem you throw at them, but it's undeniable that they'll change modern life in many ways, at times small, at others great. As for questions on life, the universe, and everything? Those still require the human element to try to answer.