Data and the human race are locked in an arms race. And we are losing. Each day, the mountain of data towers a bit higher: 2.8 zettabytes in 2012. As every technological achievement brings still more–from Facebook posts to the Internet of Things–the world’s information is doubling every two years.
As it turns out, scientists have spent the last few decades diligently working on a revolutionary new computing technology. In theory, quantum computers can compute massive amounts of data in an extremely small space with very little energy and dwarf the power of today’s silicon chips. If successful, it will harness the fundamental behavior of matter to create computing devices. The basic principle is that computers speak in ones and zeros, a binary language used to carry out calculations. Quantum computers use the same concept to encode information in matter itself, such as the spin of an electron.
Physicists have proven it possible to change the spin of an electron’s axis (up or down, simultaneously) to represent and store a bit of data. The problems is that coaxing electrons to do our quantum bidding has proven extremely difficult. Powerful lasers, advanced materials, very low temperatures (-387 Fahrenheit) and massive laboratory resources have been required to catch even a glimpse of quantum computing (electrons change their natural spin every 100 picoseconds, or one trillionth of a second).
Now researchers at MIT and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata, have discovered a way to lay down molecular memory, promising a 1,000-fold increase over today’s storage technology which is at about one million megabytes of data per square inch, says MIT. Publishing in the January 23 issue of Nature, the researchers describe using a ferromagnetic electrode to “read and write” memory using specially engineered molecules. A simplified electrode interacts with a flat sheet of carbon atoms attached to zinc atoms to affect the electron spin and encode data. Unlike previous technologies, the approach is far easier to manufacture and possible at “room temperature” (around the freezing point of water).
It’s one step on a long road to quantum computers that encode information in the molecular spin state of matter transforming our ability to process the world’s data. For now, that prospect remains theoretical. But as it took only about 50 years to advance from the first transistor to today’s early quantum computers, we may see them sooner than we think.