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Quantum leap: why the next wave of computers will change the world

In 1936, Alan Turing proposed the Turing machine, which became the foundational reference point for theories about computing and computers. Around the same time, Konrad Zuse invented the Z1 computer, considered to be the first electromagnetic binary computer.

What happened next is history, and in our world today, computers are everywhere. Our lives are dramatically different from how they were even at the end of the 20th century, and our mobile phones have far more powerful CPUs than desktop computers did only few years ago. The advent of the Internet of Things brings computer power into every minute detail of our lives. The world wide web has had such a transformative effect on society that many people can't even remember a life before they were online.

The major catalyst behind this transformation was the discovery of silicon, and its use in the production of good transistors. This occurred over a period of more than 100 years, dating from when Michael Faraday first recorded the semiconductor effect in 1833, via Morris Tanenbaum, who built the first silicon transistor at Bell Labs in 1954, to the first integrated circuit in 1960.

We are about to embark on a similar journey in our quest for building the next-generation computer. Quantum physics, which emerged in the early 20th century, is so powerful and yet so unlike anything known before that even the inventors had a hard time understanding it in detail.

A history of the future

In the early 1980s, Richard Feynman, Paul Benioff and Yuri Manin provided the groundwork for a completely new paradigm of quantum computing, introducing the idea that quantum computing had the potential to solve problems that “classical computing” could not. And so quantum computing came into its own.

Peter Shor published an algorithm in 1994 capable of efficiently solving problems in cryptography that are hard to solve for classical computers – that is, the vast majority of computers used today. In fact, Shor's algorithm continues to threaten the fundaments of most encryption deployed across the globe.

The problem was that, in 1994, there was no quantum computer in sight. In 1997, the first tiny quantum computer was built, but the field really took off only when the Canadian startup D-Wave revealed its 28-qubit quantum computer in 2007.

Similar to the trajectory of non-quantum communication, which took more than 100 years from discovery to mass use, quantum computers are now maturing very quickly. Today, many players are engaged in a battle over who can build the first powerful quantum computer. These include commercial entities such as IonQ, Rigetti, IBM, Google, Alibaba, Microsoft and Intel, while virtually all major nation states are spending billions of dollars on quantum computing development and research.

Quantum computers are powerful yet so difficult to build that whoever can crack the code will have a lasting powerful advantage. This cannot be understated. Here’s a striking example of the power of quantum computing. (...) Read More

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