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Quantum Computing: A New Kind of Computing

Quantum computing is essentially harnessing and exploiting the amazing laws of quantum mechanics to process information. A traditional computer uses long strings of “bits,” which encode either a zero or a one. A quantum computer, on the other hand, uses quantum bits, or qubits.

The secret to a quantum computer’s power lies in its ability to generate and manipulate qubits.

Today's computers use bits—a stream of electrical or optical pulses representing 1s or 0s. Everything from your tweets and e-mails to your iTunes songs and YouTube videos are essentially long strings of these binary digits.

Quantum computers, on the other hand, use qubits, which are typically subatomic particles such as electrons or photons. Generating and managing qubits is a scientific and engineering challenge. Some companies, such as IBM, Google, and Rigetti Computing, use superconducting circuits cooled to temperatures colder than deep space. Others, like IonQ, trap individual atoms in electromagnetic fields on a silicon chip in ultra-high-vacuum chambers. In both cases, the goal is to isolate the qubits in a controlled quantum state.

Qubits have some quirky quantum properties that mean a connected group of them can provide way more processing power than the same number of binary bits. One of those properties is known as superposition and another is called entanglement.

For instance, eight bits is enough for a classical computer to represent any number between 0 and 255. But eight qubits is enough for a quantum computer to represent every number between 0 and 255 at the same time. A few hundred entangled qubits would be enough to represent more numbers than there are atoms in the universe.

This is where quantum computers get their edge over classical ones. In situations where there are a large number of possible combinations, quantum computers can consider them simultaneously. Examples include trying to find the prime factors of a very large number or the best route between two places.

However, there may also be plenty of situations where classical computers will still outperform quantum ones. So, the computers of the future may be a combination of both these types.

For now, quantum computers are highly sensitive: heat, electromagnetic fields and collisions with air molecules can cause a qubit to lose its quantum properties. This process, known as quantum decoherence, causes the system to crash, and it happens more quickly the more particles that are involved.

Quantum computers need to protect qubits from external interference, either by physically isolating them, keeping them cool or zapping them with carefully controlled pulses of energy. Additional qubits are needed to correct for errors that creep into the system.

One of the most promising applications of quantum computers is for simulating the behaviour of matter down to the molecular level. Auto manufacturers like Volkswagen and Daimler are using quantum computers to simulate the chemical composition of electrical-vehicle batteries to help find new ways to improve their performance. And pharmaceutical companies are leveraging them to analyse and compare compounds that could lead to the creation of new drugs.

The machines are also great for optimization problems because they can crunch through vast numbers of potential solutions extremely fast. Airbus, for instance, is using them to help calculate the most fuel-efficient ascent and descent paths for aircraft. And Volkswagen has unveiled a service that calculates the optimal routes for buses and taxis in cities in order to minimize congestion. Some researchers also think the machines could be used to accelerate artificial intelligence.

It could take quite a few years for quantum computers to achieve their full potential. Universities and businesses working on them are facing a shortage of skilled researchers in the field—and a lack of suppliers of some key components. But if these exotic new computing machines live up to their promise, they could transform entire industries and turbocharge global innovation.

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