A quantum step closer

How close are we to a useful quantum computer? We may be a step further, following the production of a quantum chip by the  University of California, Santa Barbara.

The chip, which researchers showed off at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, contains four qubits - the quantum equivalent of the conventional binary bits found in silicon chips.
The difference between conventional bits (which represent either a one or a zero) and quantum bits is that the latter can be in two states at once - both a one and a zero - using a phenomenon known as 'superposition'. This ability to be both 'on' and 'off' is a unique feature of quantum mechanics. A quantum computer is one that is literally in two minds about everything, all the time.
The ability for qubits to represent both a one and a zero at the same time makes it possible for quantum computers to conduct calculations on different numbers at once, whereas a conventional computer has to process all of the numbers that it wants to calculate in sequence. Four bits gives a binary system enough digits for 16 numbers. The four-qubit system shown in Dallas could therefore calculate 16 numbers at the same time.
That isn't in itself a big deal. However, as researchers learn how to scale up the number of qubits in a chip, it will become very significant. With five qubits, the computer could process 32 numbers simultaneously. With ten, it could process 1024. With 20 bits, it could process 1,048,576 numbers in an instant. 
As quantum computers get more qubits, they could be used to solve some mathematical problems that the IT industry has thus far relied on to be unsolveable. 
Clearly, scalability is the goal, but that has thus far been the problem. The scientists that developed the quantum processor did it with the help of a new architecture that makes it possible to completely separate the different elements of the processor from each other, making it easier to manipulate their computational state. This is likely to lead to a 10 qubit system by the end of this year.
It will be a while before we're truly in the quantum age, but this is a step in the right direction. When we finally get there, it will change everything.
Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.