Koalas and Quantum Computing

koalaHow do you make computers faster? And why would you do that?

For the general and mundane tasks we do the computers we currently use are fast enough. I think when people complain that their computer is slow it’s more likely to be a network or internet connection that is causing the problem.

For scientists and researchers computers are fast enough for many problems, but far too slow for problems that are mathematically hard. Problems such as predicting properties of molecules in order to find a superconductor that works at room temperature, predicting the efficacy of medicines (rather than the trial method we now use) or creating a secure internet using quantum cryptography.

A quantum computer will work faster and enable us to solve these problems, how does it work? Leo Kouwenhoven, Professor of Physics at the Delft University of Technology, spoke at The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam last month. I was there, and I swear that for about two seconds I understood how quantum computing works.

It’s a long time since I studied science and even longer since I studied anything like physics so I was somewhat out of my depth but I followed it professor Kouwenhoven’s explanation and it made sense at the time.

My brain has a handy habit of translating concepts to analogies, and how I understand this to work is that classical computers – the ones we have now – solve problems using binary calculations, which is a bit like playing twenty questions.

In the game of 20 questions one player things of something, a animal, a country, a food. The other player tries to guess what it is by asking closed questions; so the answers can only be yes or no.

Question Response
Are you an animal? yes
Are you found in water? no
Are you found on land? yes
Are you found in Africa? no
Are you found in Europe? no
Are you in Australia? yes
Are you a reptile? no
Are you Koala? yes

It’s a very binary process, with each question you get one more piece of information.

But if you could ask an open question “What areĀ  you?” You’d get the answer “koala” straight away. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a game. But going back to the quantum computing analogy, the open question and response is like the super-positioned particle – you get more information on each enquiry.

It’s exciting, the predictions are that quantum computing could be solving some of these “mathematically hard” problems within 10 or 20 years.

Image / Koala / Nicki Mannix / CC BY 2.0

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