Like any technology that hasn't quite passed from science fiction to science fact, quantum computers have had high expectations placed on them. But with the arguably slow process in the development of quantum computers, as well as the discovery that their uses may be more limited than initially theorized, these heavily hyped machines have fallen somewhat in prestige. Even MIT's news service saw fit to publish a headline in 2009 that read, "Quantum computing may actually be in useful" [source: Hardesty].
In truth, quantum computers may have wide applications, but it's difficult at this relatively early stage to do anything more than guess what those might be. We know that quantum computers will be better than traditional computers at decryption, owing to their ability to quickly factor large numbers. That MIT news article pointed to a study that found that quantum computers would be useful for solving systems of linear equations, making them useful for highly complex calculations -- like modeling proteins or weather systems.
Quantum computers could also make searches much more efficient, which has drawn the attention of the world's largest Internet companies. In December 2009, Google published a post on one of its blogs about the company's research into using quantum computers for image search. Google's efforts have found that quantum computers can search for a particular image, or recognize an object within a larger image (in this case, a car), much faster than a traditional computer [source: Marks]. But some critics have questioned whether the machines provided by D-Wave Systems, the company working with Google on the project, even qualify as quantum computers [source: Guizzo].
D-Wave uses some novel methods to produce its computers (it's not clear if the company makes proper use of "entanglement," a phenomenon essential to quantum computing), and some scientists have said that its claims of producing 128-qubit computers don't seem credible [source: Guizzo]. (A qubit is a unit of quantum information that can be 0, 1 or 0 and 1 simultaneously.) In research settings, most quantum computers have topped out at far lower levels, such as 4 or 8 qubits. Even as some experts question its claims, D-Wave has achieved mainstream recognition, publishing papers in the journal "Nature" and selling one of its 128-qubit machines to Lockheed-Martin -- the first commercial sale of a quantum computer [source: Merali].
(Don Farrall/Getty Images)
The future of computing may lie in quantum computers, which use quantum particles to represent powerful data units called "qubits." When quantum computers are actually produced, they'll be extremely useful in factoring large numbers, which will make them important for decoding and encoding sensitive data. Since quantum computers will be incredibly powerful mathematical engines, they will be able to search huge databases in almost no time compared to conventional computers. Doubtlessly, quantum computers will study quantum mechanics and probably even design more advanced quantum computers.
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