This is the first in a series of short pieces on Science. We believe that informed voters will have a sense of the new worlds into which science and cutting-edge technology is leading us, and we hope to promote and sharpen that sense. Some of these pieces, too, will speak to the differences between real science and fringe or pseudo-science. Today’s subject, though, is very much real science and a technology much discussed over the last two decades but just now coming to market: the quantum computer.
Quantum computing is an emerging technology that could, over the next few years, prove a disruptive factor for, at the least, any company with an IT department and any industry with any such companies. It could also redefine investing, as entrepreneurs figure out how to use new levels of computing power to discern now-invisible patterns in the markets. Those will be among the earliest waves of its influence; further out, prediction is impossible (since I have only an organic brain and digital computers available to attempt it with).
Two important facts about the quantum computing devices that have thus far entered the marketplace: first, they do not help with all calculations, but are for special purposes. Second, they are not standalones. The quantum parts have to be read and interpreted by those old-fashioned digital computers. Still: the revolution is underway, and it will be both televised and podcast.
Strange New Worlds:
A digital computer works with bits. Every “bit” is either a 1 or a 0, either a yes or a no. But a quantum computer works with “qubits,” where the state of a qubit can be 1, or 0, or a superposition of 1 or 0. The difference is related to an old thought-experiment about a cat in a box, which may be either a dead or a living cat (a 0 or a 1) until an observer opens the lid and, in effect, fixes the cat as one or the other. A qubit is the cat before the lid is opened: a dead cat, a living cat, or the “superposition” of a dead and a living cat.