For decades now, scientists have been trying to figure out how we can use the enormous potential of quantum mechanics to build a whole new generation of computers. While your brand new iMac might run like a dream, it basically works the same as computers that were built 80 years ago - a series of electrical circuits that switch on and off on command. The problem with our current computers is that we're close to hitting the limit for how advanced they can get, but the good news is we now have all the building blocks for a quantum computer, we just need to make it run.
According to Microsoft's research lab, we could crack the quantum computing code within the next 10 years, so it's about time we understood exactly what that means, right? The Verge has put together a video that breaks down the basics of quantum computing so you can see where we've been, and where we're headed. Our current computers use electrical circuits as bits, but quantum computers will run on quantum bits, or 'qubits', as they're called.
Unlike an electrical circuit, qubits are tiny particles that are magnetically suspended in an extremely cold environment - fractions of a degree above absolute zero. What's so clever about this is that by keeping these particles in a state of superposition, they can simultaneously take on the role of both the 0 and the 1 in binary code, which is how our current computer processors know what to do.
"Right now, regular computer chips store information as binary bits, which are either in a 0 or 1 state. This system works well, but it means that there's a finite amount of data that can be processed. Qubits, on the other hand, can be in the state of 0, 1, or both at the same time, which gives quantum computers unprecedented processing power… if we can work out how to build them."
A particle that can take on the role of both 0 and 1 allows for something known as quantum speed-up to occur. As the video explains, quantum speed-up sees each qubit increase computing power exponentially, so if you can pack enough qubits in your machine, you can have a processor that out-runs anything we have right now. And while we probably don't need our emails to load many times faster than they already do, this will change everything for researchers who rely on the timely processing of huge amounts of data.
Fortunately, both Google and Microsoft are extremely invested in the idea of quantum computers, because they've got a whole lot of data they'd like to tackle, so they've got some of the world's best quantum scientists holed up trying to figure out how we clear the final hurdles. And here in Australia, engineers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have just figured out how to build a quantum logic gate out of silicon for the first time - a major step forward in the development of the technology.
Interestingly, the video above says a Canadian firm called D-Wave has already sold quantum computers to a number of labs around the world - Google's Quantum AI lab has one - but researchers say these machines haven't acutally demonstrated the quantum speed-up effect yet. D-Wave disagrees. Watch the video above to find out what's going on, and get excited, because we are so close to cracking this.