IBM is marking its 100th birthday by celebrating its record in technology innovation. It created dynamic RAM, the disk drive and the magnetic strips utilized on credit cards, among several inventions. It is one of the most inventive businesses in the world.
But the computing trade is moving to a new future as disruptive and as revolutionary as the era that began with the introduction of silicon chips, and that future is quantum computing. These are a series of systems that use the behaviour of subatomic particles to conduct calculations now performed with transistors on a chip.
This future may be anywhere from around 10 to 20 or more years away. But if the potential of quantum computing is fully realized, it may well trigger a development rush in chip and hardware design reminiscent of what Silicon Valley encountered decades ago.
“Think concerning the game changer we’re now drawing near to,” said Bernard Meyerson, IBM’s vice president of innovation and a fellow at the company. It’s Meyerson’s job to help make sure that IBM’s last 100 years aren’t remembered as its best ones. That’s one of the causes he talks about the changes in the chip world.
Following Moore’s Law, and then shrinking by another factor of 10 from the leading-edge processors of today, these transistors will be so small that “you cross into a quantum mechanical regime of operation — there’s no precedent for that,” Meyerson said.
But even once this shrink limit is reached, in about 10 years, progress will continue as engineers build tightly coupled systems with massive levels of integration on blocks of chips, as well as make improvements in memory, caching and speed processing, Meyerson said.
Those advances will extend the time frame to 20 years. But from then on, “you better have a helluva trick up your sleeve,” said Meyerson. One of those tricks might be quantum computing.
IBM researchers have studied the theory and potential of quantum computing for years, and more recently they have been experimenting with the concepts, said Bill Gallagher, the senior manager of quantum computing at IBM Research.
“It’s one of our most significant fundamental research projects now, and may be one of the largest fundamental ones,” said Gallagher, There’s been “good progress, but a long way to go,” he said.
An ordinary computer is a collection of bits that can either be a 0 or a 1. But quantum bits can hold those states, 0 and 1, simultaneously. As opposed to doing a calculation one after the other, the processing power in a quantum computer can increase exponentially. Two quantum bits, or qubits, can hold four distinct states, which can be processed simultaneously, three qubits can hold eight and 10 qubits can hold 1,024 states. In time, researchers expect machines with a huge number of qubits.
But the subatomic world of quantum computing is difficult. Approaches to maintaining “quantum coherence,” a stable state for the connection of atoms and electrons managing calculations, include processing at temperatures near absolute zero, or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, to reduce thermal interference, and using superconducting metals. Prolonging the amount of time that a coherent state can be managed is one of the challenges facing researchers.
While research continues, a quantum computing market place is emerging.
One of the concerns is that quantum computers may eventually become able to break cryptographic protections. One company, Security Innovation, has been recently thinking about the problem and has developed a public key algorithm, NTRUSignTM, that it says is proof against quantum computing attacks. It recently received a patent.
“Anyone who is building systems that need to be secure in 10 years’ time and are hard to upgrade should be thinking significantly about what happens if quantum computing comes around,” said William Whyte, the chief scientist at Security Innovation.
Whyte’s company is in the earliest wave of firms targeted on the implications of quantum computing.
“I think you are going to see a very creative outburst of ideas,” said Whyte, with new companies popping up with the potential of “leapfrogging existing vendors.”
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