By Tom Simonite
BIG THINGS HAPPEN when computers get smaller. Or faster. And quantum computing is about chasing perhaps the biggest performance boost in the history of technology. The basic idea is to smash some barriers that limit the speed of existing computers by harnessing the counterintuitive physics of subatomic scales.
If the tech industry pulls off that, ahem, quantum leap, you won’t be getting a quantum computer for your pocket. Don’t start saving for an iPhone Q. We could, however, see significant improvements in many areas of science and technology, such as longer-lasting batteries for electric cars or advances in chemistry that reshape industries or enable new medical treatments. Quantum computers won’t be able to do everything faster than conventional computers, but on some tricky problems they have advantages that would enable astounding progress.
It’s not productive (or polite) to ask people working on quantum computing when exactly those dreamy applications will become real. The only thing for sure is that they are still many years away. Prototype quantum computing hardware is still embryonic. But powerful—and, for tech companies, profit-increasing—computers powered by quantum physics have recently started to feel less hypothetical.
The cooling and support structure for one of IBM's quantum computing chips (the tiny black square at the bottom of the image). AMY LOMBARD
That’s because Google, IBM, and others have decided it’s time to invest heavily in the technology, which, in turn, has helped quantum computing earn a bullet point on the corporate strategy PowerPoint slides of big companies in areas such as finance, like JPMorgan, and aerospace, like Airbus. In 2017, venture investors plowed $241 million into startups working on quantum computing hardware or software worldwide, according to CB Insights. That’s triple the amount in the previous year.
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