Do you know what quantum computing is? Does the mention of quantum mechanics make your skin go clammy with visions of high school physics classes? If the answer to these questions is “no” and “yes,” then keep reading: Quantum computing is how our computer tech will work in the future, and though it’s highly technical, kinda creepy sounding, and your granny probably won’t believe a word of it, the power it’ll give to computers is mind-boggling. And now scientists at National Institute of Standards and Technology have just made an important breakthrough in the tech.
Today’s computers rely on semiconductor technology, built on silicon chips–tech so commonplace you barely give it a second thought. Essentially, it works by controlling the flow of millions of electrons through millions of tiny wires and switches made of exotic materials–it’s a technology that’s served us well for decades, but it’s not far off from some well-defined technical limits. To overcome some of its drawbacks, optical computing is one solution–and optical communications tech may arrive in computers pretty soon if Apple and Intel have their way with the development of Light Peak (more on this soon). Optical computing works in roughly the same way as semiconductor computing, just with billions of particles of light, rather than electrons.
Then comes quantum computing, a whole new paradigm that relies on some very non-common-sense physics. The idea in quantum computing is to exploit some of the properties that drive how the sun works or how black holes and neutron stars exist. Instead of thinking of millions of electrons rushing through tiny wires to solve math tasks sequentially, you have to think of tiny vibrating particles trapped in boxes that can process lots of different computational demands all at the same time.
What the NIST team has done, for the first time, is link the motions of two physically separated atoms. Two berillium ions were held in a laser-cooled, super-chilled electromagnetic “trap” that meant they were separate from each other, but they were close enough to be entangled. This means that by controlling tiny voltage pulses given to each ion, the beryllium ions could swap individual units of energy–quanta–even though they weren’t physically connected.
It’s like saying by controlling how you wiggle your hand, you can influence how someone in China waggles theirs–directly and instantaneously, with no physical connection between you. It’s almost magic. Einstein, who was a skeptic about a lot of the science of quantum mechanics, called this sort of trick “spooky action at a distance,” which is a far simpler way of explaining it.
Since the team at NIST could control how many quanta were exchanged and how fast the process happened, they’ve achieved a breakthrough that’s important for quantum computing–particularly when you’re talking about the flow of information through a quantum “chip.”
The future upshot? Try a computer that could solve in a millisecond the trickiest encoding and decoding task that stumps today’s computers. Or one that can calculate so many variations on an equation so fast that it helps solve otherwise intractable maths and physics problems, furthering our understanding of the universe.
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