Most people hear that phrase and simply think of some science fiction movie that they have seen in the past. But outside of Hollywood fantasies, it rarely has any real meaning for the average consumer. That's mostly because quantum computing is still a pipe dream in real life, and even after decades of using silicon microchips to power our computers, we're still largely using the same process as we started with.
16-qubit processor in holder with probe pins. Image Credit: D-Wave Systems
A team from the UK’s Centre for Quantum Photonics may have stumbled onto something remarkable, though. Something that may transform quantum computing from a pipe dream into reality. Jeremy O’Brien, who is the Centre's director, recently led a project that ended with the creation of a new photonic chip that "works on light rather than electricity."
Scientists have known for years that data traveled far quicker over light than over most any other medium. That's why fiber optics are so highly preferred. If photonic chips were able to be used in computers, speeds would increase tremendously. These days, we're happy going from a Core 2 Duo to a Core i7. But photonic chips would lead to a "quantum leap" in computing.
O’Brien has stated that "many people in the field had believed a functional quantum computer would not be a reality for at least 25 years," but here's his quote on what his team has accomplished: "However, we can say with real confidence that, using our new technique, a quantum computer could, within five years, be performing calculations that are outside the capabilities of conventional computers."
What is Quantum Computing?
You may be wondering how a quantum chip actually works, particularly since it's pretty much unheard of in reality. The model used here sends entangled photons down networks of circuits in a silicon chip, according to an article in the Financial Times. Quantum computers utilize qubits to represent units of information. Unlike the "bit" we all know and love in current traditional computers, a qubit can not only represent either a 1 or 0 state but also a superposition of both the 1 and 0 state. How do you like them apples? The report goes on further to state that these quantum computers would be able to "process information in quantities and at speeds far beyond even conventional supercomputers."
Unfortunately, consumer-based applications aren't likely to spring up in the near-term. It's expected that the first quantum computers, whenever they emerge, will be used mostly in governments, science, medicine and other places where supercomputers are currently used. But as with any technology that starts at the top, you can pretty much assume that the benefits will slowly trickle down to consumers in due time. If we could get standard desktop towers that took advantage of quantum computing, the possibilities for society as a whole are staggering to think about. The advances in graphics and number crunching would be astounding. Video render times could be reduced to seconds rather than hours. In time, software would inevitably catch up, but we're more than excited for this far-fetched fantasy to hopefully become a reality in our lifetimes.