The Race is On: Developing Quantum Computers (and Alternative Universes for Good Measure)


hitchhikers-guide_786_poster

And so the race is on. Actually, it’s been on for some time now; it’s only now that we’re starting to see the ripples on the surface of what is otherwise a very deep and dark pool filled with very large creatures jostling for position.

It’s about processing.

It’s about the future.

Quantum computers would be able to solve problems much faster than any regular computer using the best currently known algorithms (such as those established via various neural network models).  Quantum computers are totally different and unlike anything we’ve developed before. Give a regular computer enough power, it could be made to simulate any quantum algorithm – but it wouldn’t be anything like a quantum computer.

Regular computers use bits; quantum computers use qubits, which are really funky, powerful things.  The computational basis of 500 qubits that would be found on a typical quantum computer, for example, would already be too large to be represented on a classical computer because it would require 2500 complex values to be stored; this is because it’s not just about the information that qubit is displaying, but the state of being where it (the qubit) is carrying that information which also plays into it’s creating an answer to any given query.

Bear with me, now,…

Although it may seem that qubits can hold much more information than regular bits, qubits are only in a probabilistic superposition of all of their states. This means that when the final state of the qubit is measured (i.e., when an answer is derived), they can only be found in one of the possible configurations they were in before measurement.

Here’s an analogy: take a regular computer bit with its black/white 0/1 configuration as a rubber ball with one side black, and the other side white. Throw it into the air: it comes back either as Black/0 or White/1. WIth qubits, it’s likely to land as either a Black/0 or White/1 but during the process will have changed into the colors of the rainbow while you’re watching it fly through the air. That’s the kicker with qubits: you can’t think of qubits as only being in one particular state before measurement since the fact that they were in a superposition of states before the measurement was made directly affects the possible outcomes of the computation. (And remember: the act of your watching the ball fly in the air also can influence the result of the ball’s landing – a point we’ll discuss very shortly regarding our old buddy Werner Heisenberg,…).

Quantum computers offer more than just the traditional ‘101010’ ‘yes no yes no yes no’ processing routines (which is also binary for the number 42, just in case anyone is reading this). Quantum computers do a (in a manner of speaking) ‘no yes maybe‘ because in quantum physics it’s more than just whether or not any given particle is there or not: there’s also the issue of probability – i.e., ‘yes it’s there’, ‘no it’s not’ and ‘it could be’. Quantum computers share similarities with non-deterministic and probabilistic computers, with the ability to be in more than one state simultaneously.

Makes you wonder what happens if we turn on a quantum computer: would it simply disappear? Or conversely, can we expect to see quantum computers appear suddenly in our universe for no apparent reason?

Doing homework will clearly never be the same with a quantum computer.

As Ars Technica points out (http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/03/quantum-computer-gets-an-undo-button/):

This (uncertainty) property of quantum mechanics has made quantum computing a little bit more difficult. If everything goes well, at the end of a calculation, a qubit (quantum bit) will be in a superposition of the right answer and the wrong answer. 

What this also translates to is that quantum computers offer a greater realm of questions and exploration, offering greater opportunities for more answers and more options and superior processing capabilities. Likely we’ll wind up asking questions to a quantum computers and get answers we didn’t expect lending to more avenues of thought.

In other words, you’re not going to see a quantum computer at your nearby Radio Shack any time soon.

So now let’s revisit that hairy dog notion of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as this plays directly into the heart of quantum computers:

One of the biggest problems with quantum experiments is the seemingly unavoidable tendency of humans to influence the situati­on and velocity of small particles. This happens just by our observing the particles, and it has quantum physicists frustrated. To combat this, physicists have created enormous, elaborate machines like particle accelerators that remove any physical human influence from the process of accelerating a particle’s energy of motion.

Still, the mixed results quantum physicists find when examining the same particle indicate that we just can’t help but affect the behavior of quanta — or quantum particles. Even the light physicists use to help them better see the objects they’re observing can influence the behavior of quanta. Photons, for example — the smallest measure of light, which have no mass or electrical charge — can still bounce a particle around, changing its velocity and speed.

Think about it: now we’re introducing computers based – in large part – upon this technology.

We’re approaching Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy technology here: the kind of thing where we ask one question and get an answer that’s not what we’re expecting.

Improbability drive, anyone?

The race for quantum computers is big; this isn’t just some weird science fiction notion or discussion in some obscure blog.  As we reported here at ShockwaveRiderblog back in October of 2012, the CIA and Jeff Bezos of Amazon were working on a formal agreement to develop a quantum computer. Now, it was just announced that the CIA is going to ‘buy’ a good portion of Amazon’s storage services (http://www.businessinsider.com/cia-600-million-deal-for-amazons-cloud-2013-3). Meanwhile, (as also reported in this blog last week) Google bought out the Canadian firm, DNNResearch expressly to work on the development of neural networks (and with Google’s rather substantial storage capacity this is also an interesting development). Meanwhile, the founders of Blackberry just announced an initiative to pump some $100 million into quantum computing research (http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/03/20/quantumfund-lazaridis-idINDEE92J01420130320). Gee, you’d think they’d pump money into keeping Blackberry afloat, but apparently there’s more money to be made elsewhere,…

And throughout all of this is what some scientists who are involved in this business won’t tell you up front (but are quietly saying this in their respective back rooms over their coffee machines) is that nobody really knows what happens if / when we develop a quantum computer and we turn it on.

Understand: we’re potentially talking about a computer where if/when we attempt to undertake a Turing Test with it, we could ask it how the weather is and get answers that seemingly don’t make any sense – until later on when we realize that it’s been giving us the answers all along: we were just too dumb to realize it was telling us what the weather’s likely to be the next month.

Note the distinction: we ask how the weather is and the (potential) quantum computer tells us an answer that we didn’t expect because we didn’t frame the question in a manner appropriate for that given moment.

Quantum computing is going to be a very strange place indeed.

Maybe the final answer is indeed going to be 42.

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

– Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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One thought on “The Race is On: Developing Quantum Computers (and Alternative Universes for Good Measure)

  1. Pingback: The Race is On: Developing Quantum Computers (and Alternative Universes for Good Measure) | shockwaveriderblog

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