Quantum computing

It has been beset by hoaxes and remains shrouded in confusion, but quantum computing is no pipe dream. Indeed, many experts regard it as inevitable.

In traditional computing, parallel processing divides a task into parts and delegates them to separate processors or processor cores. Quantum computing does much the same thing, only the processing happens in the subatomic realm, where the laws of quantum mechanics hold sway.

While a traditional magnetic bit can represent only a 1 or a 0, quantum bits &mdash or qbits &mdash consisting of atoms and subatomic particles offer an array of exotic possibilities. A quantum computer might encode data into the spin of electrons; because an electron can spin in an infinite number of directions around a nucleus, it can take on any value and thus process data much more efficiently than a binary system.

Researchers are looking to quantum computing primarily as a way to factor huge numbers or search enormous amounts of data. That would be a revolutionary breakthrough for NSA spooks who dream of an instant code- breaking computer&mdashbut for the average Joe, not so much. The quantum techniques being researched benefit only a few specific computational problems. For run-of-the-mill apps like PowerPoint and Quake, they won’t make any difference.

Still, quantum PCs are likely within a couple of decades. Chalk it up to Moore’s law; as electronic components shrink, they inevitably become subject to quantum effects. The connections in today’s CPUs are already small enough that they’re plagued by subatomic anomalies like electrons that disappear and show up in another spot. The trick is to turn quantum weirdness into a feature rather than a bug.

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