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It May Sound Like Science Fiction, but the Next Leap in Computing Will Be a Quantum One

By Don Hamilton

If someone told you that at a given moment there were millions of parallel universes splitting off or entangling with ours, what would you think? (What is he smoking?) It gets worse! What if he then said in a totally excited voice, that we can use those other universes to do calculations using a computer what works simultaneously in many universes in order to solve problems, very big problems, in minutes that today would take a billion years on the fastest computers? Long pause while I take some time to get a grip and decide how to throw him out of my office.

But wait. It actually is happening. The U.S. Army is developing a quantum code machine that uses a form of teleportation–re-creating information at a distance–to decode a message so that only one person can receive the message even when it's broadcast over open channels. The person on the receiving end gets a code based on quantum entanglement and decodes the message. This process is based on an effect known as entanglement when, for example, electrons exist between two energy states. Normally they have a discreet energy level. When in between, the two particles can be separated by a large distance and when one is affected the other reflects the same change in an apparent violation of a rule we have all been trained to believe in. The quantum world is sort of a phantom world of half particle and half wave disappearing and reappearing in a discrete and digital fashion. At the lowest levels of particle physics, the world works more like a digital watch than an analog dial and face type.

          In this sometimes ghostlike world of moving between states, some very complex relationships have been discovered that will allow quantum particles to be used like on and off bits of the computer except they have more states. It was theorized that qubits could be used to compute.  The first quantum computers have done some very simple computations to demonstrate that the principle works. In fact one of the first runs on caffeine molecules (I liked the concept because I run on the same thing). The first simple structures have done simple calculations and other small steps toward testing quantum calculations–they will not compete with the standard computers for years–but if it can be done in small scale, then humans generally find a way to do it on large scales.

          Estimates have put the first functioning commercial quantum computer as 10 to 25 years off. Today scientists all over the world are working on this subject.

It became imperative to study that quantum computation when the Shor algorithm was developed by Peter Shor of Bell Laboratories. He posited that a quantum computer could factor a large number in seconds and render almost any secure computer transaction visible to the owner of such a computer. This fact caused NATO, the U.S. military and others to begin to investigate for self-protection the possibilities as soon as they could. Now it is no longer a question of if but when this event will occur.

An algorithm developed by Lov Grover will sort an unsorted database faster than a conventional computer. The algorithm searches a multitude of universes with a single search and would theoretically crack the Data Encryption Standard (DES) that is used to protect things such as financial transactions between banks.

Add to this the Army's ``quantum beaming" communication device that will send a code to another location that can only be detected by the person that it is intended to go to. On one hand computer security is being threatened; on the other it is about to become much more secure.

          The point of this story is not that these things are on the brink of existence but that just a few years ago the average person would have no way of knowing about this work being done in the world's physics shops and universities. It would have been covered in detail only in esoteric physics periodicals, whose existence are unknown to most people. The Web however has changed all of this. Now you can find thousands of papers written on the subject.

Why is this important? In a few years these facts will change the way we think and work. Artificial intelligence may become a reality because a quantum computer theoretically can simulate any object. As these changes happen, new terms will be coined that will become valuable commodities, such as related URLs or processes that will become obvious in the near future. If you read and study a little now, you might be the one who patents the next billion-dollar process: a ``one click" or ``reverse auction" of the quantum future.

          Quantum communications happen faster than the speed of light, meaning the speed of information transfer will increase to an almost incomprehensible rate.

Let's look further at how this works. Some of quantum events are happening in different dimensions or parallel universes (read article about and interview with physicist David Deutsch on the subject at http://www.simonsays.com/excerpt.cfm?isbn=0684814811).

Entangled states of electrons when separated by distance connect in a spooky way. When one is affected, the other is affected instantly. In order to imagine an explanation of other dimensions, let us start with a piece of paper. Assume the paper has no thickness, just length and width. A two dimensional man living on this paper can move around within the limits of this ``paper." From the outside we can watch him move from one corner to the other and we can see both sides of the paper so we are like God to him; we can see him but he cannot see us. We can stick our finger into his 2D world and affect him. When our finger enters his world, he would see an object that looked like a circle. It would be the cross section of our finger that the plane of the 2D world crossed. As we pushed more of our hand and arm onto his world, it would start to take up a lot of his space but he would still be very confused as to what was happening.

Now let's take his 2D world and fold it in half until the two ends touch. Now imagine a 3D electron or photon that is pushed through at this point. To the 2D man the two slices of the electron that passed through his paper 2D world would be going through both parts that were folded near to each other but because our little man is in the middle of the page he looks to both sides of his world and sees the two representations of the electron at either end of his world because he does not know it is folded. If the electron is pushed to the center of his 2D world where the fold happens, he sees the two electrons at a distance coming together until they are one in the center. They are still one in the same.

          In our 3D world, you cannot imagine the next dimension up any more than the 2D man could. And it is difficult to explain or predict the effects of the interaction of objects from other dimensions or parallel universes. Quantum particles and events appear to exist between these dimensions in some states and as we begin to build prediction models of their behavior, we try to model how they work and we are finding that to predict their activities you have to unbind yourself from the 3D universe.

          All this information and more is available on the Web. If you don't want to read non-layman physics, don't worry; there are plenty of pages available that discus the ideas in lay terms. Unfortunately much of the information available is in the form of equations but some of it is simple once you understand the language.

          Radiation is one form of quantum effect that we have all heard about and seen evidence of. None of this is completely new. Albert Einstein called this quantum mechanical correlation, ``spooky action at a distance." The ideas have been running around for several years now and it has caused a lot of talk and myth. When the first nuclear bombs were detonated, every sci-fi movie was about monsters spawned by radiation. ``The Hollow Man" is the modern equivalent with his quantum phase shift to invisible (he drops his body off in another dimension I suppose) and Jody Foster took a hole in the universe's time-bending warp to another star system in ``Contact." All these are examples of what has happened with past discoveries and inventions. They are used as explanations for everything from medicines to science-fiction movies.

          How does this relate to the Internet? The answer is that you can find 116,000 documents on the subject quantum communications. If this were 15 or 20 years ago, you would have had to subscribe to a physics magazine that you would not have known of unless you were a physicist. Today all the schools, scientists and business people can go to the same place and quickly be up to speed. If Amazon.com can patent one click and Priceline the reverse auction, then imagine the possibilities regarding quantum communications or computers? If you think about it, you will realize that opportunities are waiting to be taken advantage of all over the Net.

          What does this mean to the future of communications? Moore's law is generally stated as a doubling of computing power every 18 months. Most people know that the power of the computer is increasing at such a rate that three to five years after you buy a computer you will not have much use for it. In 1964, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore noticed this doubling trend and noted it for the world. Now we simply accept it as the way it is.

Let's take a quick look at the problem. If we continue doubling, when do we run into a limit, like our switch is smaller than the smallest particle we know of, which is impossible? If we use the classic doubling example using a chess board and we put a penny on the first square and two on the next and continue doubling on all the squares of the board, we arrive at $100 quadrillion–more than all the money that has ever existed in the world. At the small end we have a practical limit of .25 microns for a switch. Or in other words, we will be about as small as we can be in 2010 to 2020 at our current rule of doubling. Interestingly, this is about the same time that quantum machines should start to become available.

          What does this mean for secure communications?

It's possible these efforts could be leading us in a wrong direction and it could all be explained as a mathematical aberration in that when we use it to compute, the results are somehow different than the quantum logic predicts it will be. There is also the possibility that multiple realities or Hilbert space do not exist. However the evidence keeps pointing to a future with quantum computers and teleportation communications.

Spend some time and sort through some of the Web pages listed at the end of this article and you will find a lot more including some very interesting discussion groups. It is hard to describe quantum physics to a diverse audience but there are a lot of online sources that will help in the details and there are many books that can be very helpful. There is something here that will change our world, the way we communicate and possibly how we view our lives.

 Quantum links

 

Quantum parallelism: http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~ids/quantum_computing.html

 Dilbert cartoon on the subject:

http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~ids/dotdot/misc/images/dilbert-dt970322_295.gif

 

Los Alamos National Laboratory list of papers on the subject:

http://arxiv.org/list/quant-ph/current

 

Centre for Quantum Computation, University of Oxford: http://www.qubit.org/ 

Off the traditional path but very interesting:

http://www.hep.upenn.edu/~max/toe_press.html

 

Basic information on the subject: http://www.ele.kth.se/QEO/qucomm/QuCommB.html

 

U.S. Army Research Office: http://www.aro.army.mil/phys/roadmap.htm

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