But the enormous potential of quantum computing is undeniable, and the hardware needed to harness it is advancing fast. The prehistory of quantum computing begins early in the 20th century, when physicists began to sense they had lost their grip on reality. First, accepted explanations of the subatomic world turned out to be incomplete. Sometimes they acted like waves instead.
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Quantum mechanics emerged to explain such quirks, but introduced troubling questions of its own. Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman , at Caltech, coins the term quantum computer.
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Physicist David Deutsch , at Oxford, maps out how a quantum computer would operate, a blueprint that underpins the nascent industry of today. Google hires the professor behind some of the best quantum computer hardware yet to lead its new quantum hardware lab. IBM puts some of its prototype quantum processors on the internet for anyone to experiment with, saying programmers need to get ready to write quantum code.
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Startup Rigetti opens its own quantum computer fabrication facility to build prototype hardware and compete with Google and IBM. But some people grasped it well enough to redefine our understanding of the universe. The basic theory or blueprint for quantum computers that took shape in the 80s and 90s still guides Google and others working on the technology.
Before we belly flop into the murky shallows of quantum computing 0. A computer might flip the voltage in a circuit on and off to represent 1s and 0s for example. Quantum computers do calculations using bits, too. After all, we want them to plug into our existing data and computers. But quantum bits, or qubits, have unique and powerful properties that allow a group of them to do much more than an equivalent number of conventional bits.
Qubits can be built in various ways, but they all represent digital 0s and 1s using the quantum properties of something that can be controlled electronically. Popular examples—at least among a very select slice of humanity—include superconducting circuits, or individual atoms levitated inside electromagnetic fields.
The magic power of quantum computing is that this arrangement lets qubits do more than just flip between 0 and 1. Treat them right and they can flip into a mysterious extra mode called a superposition. You may have heard that a qubit in superposition is both 0 and 1 at the same time. If you have a yearning to truly grok it, you must make a mathematical odyssey WIRED cannot equip you for. But in the simplified and dare we say perfect world of this explainer, the important thing to know is that the math of a superposition describes the probability of discovering either a 0 or 1 when a qubit is read out—an operation that crashes it out of a quantum superposition into classical reality.
A quantum computer can use a collection of qubits in superpositions to play with different possible paths through a calculation. If done correctly, the pointers to incorrect paths cancel out, leaving the correct answer when the qubits are read out as 0s and 1s. A device that uses quantum mechanical effects to represent 0s and 1s of digital data, similar to the bits in a conventional computer. It's the trick that makes quantum computers tick, and makes qubits more powerful than ordinary bits.
A superposition is in an intuition-defying mathematical combination of both 0 and 1. Quantum algorithms can use a group of qubits in a superposition to shortcut through calculations.
The holy grail of quantum computing—a measure of how much faster a quantum computer could crack a problem than a conventional computer could. For some problems that are very time consuming for conventional computers, this allows a quantum computer to find a solution in far fewer steps than a conventional computer would need. The answer is that it's in all the places we could have potentially seen it in at once.
Now there might be another wave function which is also a solution to the same equation, but describes the particle being in another part of the box. And here's the thing: if you add these two different wave functions, the sum is also a solution! So, if the particle being in one place is a solution and the particle being in another place is a solution, then the particle being in the first place and the second place is also a solution. In this sense, the particle can be said to be in several places at once.
As we have seen, it's impossible to predict where our particle in the box is going be when we measure it. The same goes for any other thing you might want to measure about the particle, for example its momentum: all you can do is work out the probability that the momentum takes each of several possible values. To work out from the wave function what those possible values of position and momentum are, you need mathematical objects called operators.
There are many different operators, but there's one particular one we need for position and there's one for momentum. When we have performed the measurement, say of position, the particle is most definitely in a single place. This wave function is mathematically related to the position operator: it's what mathematicians call an eigenstate of the position operator. The same goes for momentum. When you have measured momentum, the wave function collapses to an eigenstate of the momentum operator. If you were to measure momentum and position simultaneously, and get certain answers for both, then the two eigenstates corresponding to position and momentum would have to be the same.
It's a mathematical fact, however, that the eigenstates of these two operators never do coincide. Therefore, position and momentum can never be measured simultaneously with arbitrary accuracy. For those familiar with some of the technicalities, the eigenstates cannot be the same because the operators don't commute. As we know from experience, superposition disappears when we look at a particle.
Nobody has ever directly seen a single particle in several places at once. So why does superposition disappear upon measurement? And how? These are questions nobody knows the answers to. Somehow, measurement causes reality to "snap" into just one of the possible outcomes. Some say that the wave function simply "collapses" by some unknown mechanism.
Others suggest that reality splits into different branches at the point of measurement. In each branch an observer sees one of the possible outcomes. The measurement problem is the million dollar question of quantum mechanics. While the Editor considers the request, publication of the manuscript will be suspended. If the manuscript has already been published in an online issue, any requests approved by the Editor will result in a corrigendum.
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Quantum-Bayesian and Pragmatist Views of Quantum Theory
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