Quantum computer’s mind-bending scope

It could be a prop from Doctor Who or Hollywood’s idea of a crazy invention of a mad professor.

But the glittering lump of steel sprouting foil-wrapped pipes balanced on a stack of books and magazines represents a revolution in computing that could change the world.

The 60cm tall machine housed in a cramped laboratory at the University of Sussex is a prototype ion qubit quantum computer.

Still a work in progress, it is designed to demonstrate technology that marks a leap forward in attempts to build unimaginably powerful computers based on the weird principles of quantum physics.

Scientists hope that in as little as 10 years they will be able to scale up the device to produce the first commercially available universal quantum computer capable of solving myriad different problems.

Quantum computers are the ultimate multi-taskers, carrying out many operations at once to work millions of times faster than conventional computers.

They could theoretically unravel incredibly complex problems in days that would take a modern supercomputer billions of years to solve, and transform fields such as finance, drug discovery, biochemistry, materials science and encryption.

A conventional computer stores “bits” of information as binary code sequences of zeroes and ones, but a quantum computer “qubit” can be a zero, a one, both a zero and a one, or an infinite number of values in between.

That is due to the strange ability of subatomic particles to be in more than one state at the same time, until they are observed or interfered with. Only then does one or other value materialise. In a similar way, a spinning coin hides its identity until a hand stops it to reveal a face that is heads or tails.

Speaking at the British Science Festival in Brighton, Professor Winfried Hensinger, who heads the university’s quantum technology lab, says even Albert Einstein was “freaked out” by quantum effects and called them “spooky”.

Then 10 to 20 years ago physicists started asking themselves whether it might be possible to build a quantum device that could perform certain computations “unbelievably fast”.

“What does unbelievably fast mean?” said Hensinger “Unbelievably fast means that it could calculate something that even the fastest supercomputer in the world would take billions of years to calculate in minutes, days or weeks.

“It means quantum computers can solve problems you couldn’t even dream about solving before.”

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