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What is Quantum Computing?

Digital computer
Credit: Max4E/Shutterstock

Consider this: The smartphone in your pocket has the power of a circa 1967 computer that required the physical space of an entire room, and it was a very large room at that.

Even with the incredible technological advances made since then, there are still highly complex problems that current computers simply cannot solve, largely because they're limited to computing one thing at a time. Quantum computing can overcome this limitation, and that's why it's so exciting.

Quantum computing is related to the laws of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that explores the very smallest parts of the physical world at the most fundamental ways, including how particles take on more than one state at the same time. The early origins of quantum computing began with Albert Einstein's 1935 collaboration with physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen. Einstein pooh-poohed the phenomenon upon which quantum computing is based: entanglement. But that same phenomenon has since been proven possible.

Paul Benioff, a physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory is widely credited with being the first to apply quantum theory to computers in 1981. In quantum computing, traditional laws of physics no longer apply. Instead of encoding information in bits with values of 1s and 0s that act as on and off switches to drive computer functions, quantum computing uses quantum bits – known at qubits.

Qubits operate differently in that each qubit represents both a 1 and 0 simultaneously; in superposition. Qubits in superposition can be correlated with each other (entanglement). Entanglement allows quantum computers to process information in more sophisticated ways (i.e., multiple computer functions processing information at the same time) to solve extremely complex problems that simply cannot be unraveled by traditional computers.

Quantum computer processors are light-years faster than today's computers, enabling incredibly massive amounts of data to be stored and manipulated using far less energy than a conventional computer. Moreover, these powerful machines take an entirely new approach to information processing.

Admittedly, all this sounds a lot like science fiction, but it's not. Scientists have already built quantum computer prototypes that are operating, processing data and being studied. Today, technological advances are moving us closer and closer to the creation of a practical quantum computer, a new computing tool with unimaginable power. To be sure, quantum computing isn't expected to replace or impede the ongoing evolution, ever-increasing power and practical use of the computers we all use today. Instead, quantum computers are expected to exist alongside traditional computers, taking on more complex problems that only quantum computing can solve.

So, when will we see a practical quantum computer? It isn't all that far off into the future. Author Russ Juskalian of the MIT Technology Review recently predicted that practical quantum computing will be available in just four to five years. Corporate funding is finally pouring in from companies like Google and Intel to support research and development of a practical quantum computing machine. Previously, a practical quantum computer existed only on paper.

In educating others about the quantum computing and exploring the potential of this new information processing tool, IBM uses a real-world example. IBM says current computers cannot model caffeine or understand its molecular structure and properties. Quantum computing has the potential to unlock this kind of challenge and countless others.

Imagine the breakthroughs and discoveries that quantum computing might bring in areas like artificial intelligence, medical diagnostics and drug therapies, just to name a few.

Pamela Oldham

Professional writer and content strategist with strong experience in multiple writing disciplines and a background as a technology and healthcare marketing practitioner.