The massive amount of processing power generated by computer manufacturers has not yet been able to quench our thirst for speed and computing capacity. In 1947, American computer engineer **Howard Aiken** said that just six electronic digital computers would satisfy the computing needs of the United States. Others have made similar errant predictions about the amount of computing power that would support our growing technological needs. Of course, Aiken didn’t count on the large amounts of data generated by scientific research, the proliferation of personal computers or the emergence of the Internet, which have only fueled our need for more, more and more computing power.

Will we ever have the amount of computing power we need or want? If, as **Moore’s Law** states, the number of transistors on a microprocessor continues to double every 18 months, the year 2020 or 2030 will find the circuits on a microprocessor measured on an atomic scale. And the logical next step will be to create **quantum computers**, which will harness the power of atoms and molecules to perform memory and processing tasks. Quantum computers have the potential to perform certain calculations significantly faster than any silicon-based computer.

Scientists have already built basic quantum computers that can perform certain calculations; but a practical quantum computer is still years away. In this article, you’ll learn what a quantum computer is and just what it’ll be used for in the next era of computing.

You don’t have to go back too far to find the origins of quantum computing. While computers have been around for the majority of the 20th century, quantum computing was first theorized less than 30 years ago, by a physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory. **Paul Benioff** is credited with first applying quantum theory to computers in 1981. Benioff theorized about creating a quantum Turing machine. Most digital computers, like the one you are using to read this article, are based on the **Turing Theory**.

# Defining the Quantum Computer

The Turing machine, developed by **Alan Turing** in the 1930s, is a theoretical device that consists of tape of unlimited length that is divided into little squares. Each square can either hold a symbol (1 or 0) or be left blank. A read-write device reads these symbols and blanks, which gives the machine its instructions to perform a certain program. Does this sound familiar? Well, in a **quantum** Turing machine, the difference is that the tape exists in a quantum state, as does the read-write head. This means that the symbols on the tape can be either 0 or 1 or a **superposition** of 0 and 1; in other words the symbols are both 0 and 1 (and all points in between) at the same time. While a normal Turing machine can only perform one calculation at a time, a quantum Turing machine can perform many calculations at once.

Image used under the GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 The Bloch sphere is a representation of a qubit, the fundamental building block of quantum computers. |

Today’s computers, like a Turing machine, work by manipulating bits that exist in one of two states: a 0 or a 1. Quantum computers aren’t limited to two states; they encode information as quantum bits, or **qubits**, which can exist in superposition. Qubits represent atoms, ions, photons or electrons and their respective control devices that are working together to act as computer memory and a processor. Because a quantum computer can contain these multiple states simultaneously, it has the potential to be millions of times more powerful than today’s most powerful supercomputers.

This superposition of qubits is what gives quantum computers their inherent **parallelism**. According to physicist **David Deutsch**, this parallelism allows a quantum computer to work on a million computations at once, while your desktop PC works on one. A 30-qubit quantum computer would equal the processing power of a conventional computer that could run at 10 **teraflops** (trillions of floating-point operations per second). Today’s typical desktop computers run at speeds measured in gigaflops (billions of floating-point operations per second).

Quantum computers also utilize another aspect of quantum mechanics known as **entanglement**. One problem with the idea of quantum computers is that if you try to look at the subatomic particles, you could bump them, and thereby change their value. If you look at a qubit in superposition to determine its value, the qubit will assume the value of either 0 or 1, but not both (effectively turning your spiffy quantum computer into a mundane digital computer). To make a practical quantum computer, scientists have to devise ways of making measurements indirectly to preserve the system’s integrity. Entanglement provides a potential answer. In quantum physics, if you apply an outside force to two atoms, it can cause them to become entangled, and the second atom can take on the properties of the first atom. So if left alone, an atom will spin in all directions. The instant it is disturbed it chooses one spin, or one value; and at the same time, the second entangled atom will choose an opposite spin, or value. This allows scientists to know the value of the qubits without actually looking at them.

Next, we’ll look at some recent advancements in the field of quantum computing.

Qubit ControlComputer scientists control the microscopic particles that act as qubits in quantum computers by using **control devices**.

**Ion traps**use optical or magnetic fields (or a combination of both) to trap ions.**Optical traps**use light waves to trap and control particles.**Quantum dots**are made of semiconductor material and are used to contain and manipulate electrons.**Semiconductor impurities**contain electrons by using “unwanted” atoms found in semiconductor material.**Superconducting circuits**allow electrons to flow with almost no resistance at very low temperatures.