Are quantum computers just around the corner?
The pursuit to build ever-increasingly powerful computers has driven scientists to look at new and unique ways to develop processing power. Just fifty years ago computers were devices that occupied the space of a standard family size home but are now so small you can fit one with the same power in the palm of your hand.
Current computer systems work off the basis of transistors, all working in parallel to solve a particular problem. To achieve better processing speeds in a similar size package, developers of the hardware have tried to miniaturise transistors in a bid to double or triple processing speed. For much of the last 20 years this approach has been fruitful, but its time is coming to an end. Manufacturers can only shrink so much; the pressure is now on to find a new method.
Quantum computers seem to represent the holy grail for this problem. Instead of utilising traditional decimal places (ones and noughts) to process problems, Quantum computers uses sub-atomic particles to create quantum bits, the theory of superposition where electrons or photons can be in two states at the same time. Using this method, a computer could theoretically do an unlimited amount of calculations in an instant.
With the method offering such a ground-breaking solution to computing power, Rigetti, IBM, Intel, Google and Microsoft are all investing vast sums of money to get there first. There have been four possible approaches outlined to harness the power of quantum computing; superconducting qubits, trapped ions, light particles and nitrogen-vacancy centres in diamonds.
To begin to explain how each of these processes works would require knowledge far beyond my own capability. Each of the companies vying to build a working prototype have remained coy about a timeline, but with commentators suggesting a breakthrough is now possible we could all soon witness a landmark in modern human civilisation.