What is known as a quantum computer has been the subject of movies and series on dozens of occasions throughout history? Although the original concept may sound like science fiction, the truth is that quantum computers are already a reality. As their name suggests, this type of machine takes advantage of the properties of quantum mechanics to solve certain problems that classical computers are not capable of solving, problems that we will discuss below.
Quantum Computers: What They Are and What Differentiates Them From A Traditional PC
Before discussing the differences between a quantum computer and a conventional computer, it is useful to know the nature of the term “quantum”, which in this case refers to the type of information handled by this type of equipment.
As is well known, conventional computers work with the simplest unit of information we know, the bit. This unit contains exactly two states of information that are subdivided into 0 and 1. In the case of quantum computers, the minimum unit of information is known as a cubit or qubit.
Graphical representation of a cubit or qubit in the form of a Bloch sphere. The sphere represents both the possible states of the qubit and the states themselves based on the polarization of a photon.
Unlike a bit, which can only contain a single combination, a qubit can contain a simultaneous combination of 0 and 1. Hence, more complex units such as bytes, which are simple groupings of bits, are handled. It should be noted that the natural state of a qubit is represented by subatomic particles, such as photons or electrons.
To deal with this type of information, quantum computers require the use of certain systems and materials that are resistant to this type of particle. In other words, the computer does not have a conventional structure but uses a series of superconducting circuits whose cooling is designed to reach absolute zero and thus isolate the particles in a state that can be controlled.
Quantum Mechanics and Qubits: How Quantum Computers Work With Information
We have already mentioned that qubits can contain different strings of 0’s and 1’s at the same time. This is because qubits can be represented in different states. For this, quantum computers require the use of a series of systems to achieve what is known as quantum superposition, which is nothing more or less than the possibility of representing several states at the same time, i.e. several strings of 0 and 1. This means that the information contained in this type of particle is much greater than what we can find in a byte.
This is what an alanine molecule used in the NMR implementation of quantum computing looks like. Often, how such molecules are introduced into quantum computers is related to magnetic resonance systems.
Current systems are made up of microwaves and precision lasers that allow the state of the qubits to be controlled. One of the great challenges of current engineering has to do with these systems and their design. Creating a system that is capable of controlling these states while keeping the qubits in their natural state will raise the possibility of working with enormous amounts of information to levels never before recorded. And precisely another of the great challenges of current engineering is related to the combination of different qubits in groups known as chains, which overlap through what is known as quantum entanglement.
This phenomenon describes the pairwise grouping of qubits. In the same way that bits intertwine with each other to form a byte, the grouping of this unit follows the laws of quantum mechanics. The problem is that the current laws of physics do not explain this phenomenon, as controllability is subject to failure. And this is one of the major problems of quantum computers: the probability of error when performing calculations.
This is due to the behavior of the qubits themselves when interacting with each other and creating pairs with the rest of the particles in the surrounding environment. As we indicated in previous paragraphs, the control of qubit states is one of the great challenges of current engineering, since current systems try to solve what is known as quantum incoherence.
Such is the difficulty of grouping qubits, that the greatest achievement of current engineering has only grouped 128 qubits. This difference concerning conventional computers is known as quantum supremacy, which is precisely related to the possibility of solving calculations that conventional computers are not capable of solving regardless of the computational capacity they have. In 2019, Google announced having reached quantum supremacy with its computers, A year later, it was China that announced having reached this milestone through a research group at the University of Science and Technology of China in collaboration with Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The Race to Develop a Fully-fledged Quantum Computer
At present, very few companies have participated in the development of this type of equipment because of the investment and the difficulty of progress involved. The best known at present are Intel, Google, and IBM, which are in a race to develop the first viable quantum computer. For example, Google’s quantum computer, called Sycamore, has a capacity of 54 qubits and is capable of performing calculations that a conventional computer would take approximately 10,000 years to perform in just 3.5 minutes. That’s nothing.
As for Intel’s developments, the company has launched its chip, known as Horse Ridge, in 2020. This chip allows the integration of quantum processors of up to 128 qubits, the limit that has been achieved to date. On the other hand, companies such as D-Wave, which are involved in the development of this type of equipment, have proposed their computers to the scientific community in the fight against the cure for COVID-19. IBM has also created its commercial quantum computer, called IBM Q System One.
With a power of 20 qubits, the computer is housed in an airtight glass cube 2.7 meters wide by 2.7 meters high that helps maintain the correct temperature while absorbing vibrations in the environment. It is worth noting that such a feat was accomplished in 2019, no less.
So, What is Quantum Computer For?
The information processing capacity of quantum computers opens the door to a whole world of the future in different sectors. After all, the main limitation of the different developments in the industry today has to do with the processing capacity of conventional computer hardware.
The use of quantum computers in certain industries would help to develop advances in medicine, cybersecurity, autonomous driving systems, artificial intelligence, robotics, and many other sectors that depend on information processing. The enormous computing power of this type of equipment could accelerate the development of certain technologies, such as those related to graphene or the development of lithium-ion batteries with higher density. It would also be possible to simulate the behavior of certain particles in contact with others, giving us the possibility of emulating the birth of the Universe, an action that has already been attempted since the Higgs Boson was installed in Switzerland and which resulted in the discovery of the God particle.
In any case, everything points to the fact that this type of equipment will not be massively available for approximately 15 years. Their arrival in the home is not expected for at least a century, since both particle control and equipment size are not within the reach of the consumer market at the time of publication (although companies such as SpinQ Technology have already developed a desktop device for the general public). Needless to say, such proposals are a far cry from the capabilities of today’s most powerful computers, although they bring the possibilities of quantum computers closer to the market.
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