By Tiernan Ray at Barron's
Is five years beyond your investment horizon? If so, ignore what I’m about to say: In five years, we will have practical quantum computers, long the holy grail of computer scientists.
That prediction comes from Microsoft (ticker: MSFT), which is pursuing novel avenues to build a computer that operates on the strange quantum mechanical properties of subatomic particles. Such computers may solve previously intractable problems in information technology.
Even if quantum computing lies outside your portfolio considerations, there are implications worth pondering. Quantum computers are already being “simulated” by Microsoft, meaning that some of their basic operations are being mimicked on plain old microprocessors and memory chips.
As quantum computing grows nearer, and as programmers eager to learn about it explore it through mimicry, it could ripple through technology. The race for innovative chips, software, and cloud computing could be affected. Companies that shoulder the risk and reward include chip makers Intel (INTC), Nvidia (NVDA), and Micron Technology (MU), and cloud-computing operators such as Microsoft, with its Azure cloud service; Alphabet’s (GOOGL) Google; and Amazon.com (AMZN).
QUANTUM COMPUTERS EXPLOIT nonlinear aspects of quantum particles such as “entanglement” and “superposition,” in which particles exist in not one but several states simultaneously. That makes possible computations in parallel, rather than the traditional one-by-one processing of classical computing. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman helped propel the field in a series of 1981 lectures, when he proposed a computer built using individual atoms. Because atoms have “measurable physical attributes,” known as “spin,” said Feynman, digital ones and zeros could be represented, or encoded, in them. Later, scientists broadened the concept. Instead of ones and zeros at a subatomic level, the qualities of entanglement and superposition could give quantum computers the ability to dramatically multiply the work that can be done in a given amount of time.
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