Every sip from a cup of coffee contains a secret. This is more or less what Jerry Chow is trying to get across during his talk; he’s standing on stage in a large hall in San Francisco, hundreds of rapt audience members seated before him, the chemical symbol for the caffeine molecule projected on a screen behind him. Chow, an experimental researcher for quantum computing at IBM, says: “The complexity of this molecule goes far beyond the computational possibilities of today’s compu-
ters. We can’t analyze or simulate it.” There’s a short pause. “No computer using today’s technology will ever be able to do that.”
Caffeine is just a representative example of numerous mole-cules that humans would like to better understand for research purposes—right up to DNA, the carrier of genetic information for every living thing. Chow believes it is time for a paradigm shift, “equivalent to taking us from the horse-and-buggy all the way out to the warp drive of the starship Enterprise.” He’s holding the solution in his hand in the form of a small processor. It’s supposed to be able to decipher caffeine and other molecules in the future. And there’s more: it will be able to revolutionize medical research and also substantially optimize industrial processes.
The processor is part of a quantum computer—a new generation of supercomputers that will be able to carry out computational operations at tremendous speeds. Specifically, what it means is this: if a computer today theoretically requires millions of years for a particular calculation (which de facto corresponds to an unsolvable problem), a quantum computer would be able to solve it within a week. Or perhaps a day. Or possibly even faster.
Simply put, the quantum computer’s superiority results from its flexibility. A standard computer calculates using bits, which can have just one of two values: either 0 or 1. In contrast, quantum computers work with what are known as quantum bits, or qubits, that are realized with physical particles, for instance an atom, an electron or a photon.
TEMPERATURES LIKE THOSE IN SPACE
Qubits are governed by the laws of quantum physics, so along with being able to take on the states of 0 and 1, qubits can also take on both states at the same time. This special property is called superposition. On top of all this, various quantum particles can be brought into quantum entanglement, which means that the number of combinations—and thus the computing power—grows exponentially with the number of qubits. However, to achieve this, the processors must be completely isolated from any outside influences. They usually work in a vacuum and in special cooling chambers, where the prevailing temperature is close to absolute zero (-273° Celsius)—about the temperature of outer space.