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Are computers about to get a million times faster?

Posting in Cancer

As much as we marvel at how much technology has changed and sped up our lives, we also know that it's not as fast as it could be.

If you've ever gotten tired of waiting for email to download on your phone, then you can only imagine how scientists feel when they have to wait weeks for their computers to calculate, say, how a solar burst would affect a network of satellites.

But there is a type of computer that should be able to do that sort of calculation instantly: a quantum computer, one that uses subatomic particles and the principles of quantum mechanics instead of the ones and zeros that form the basis for the computers that we know.

In a quantum computer, as The New York Times puts it, "A one can be a one, or it can be a one and a zero and everything in between — all at the same time." And scientists at companies like Microsoft, I.B.M. and Hewlett-Packard have been working on developing them.

Now, Lockheed Martin plans to upgrade this technology to commercial scale. Two years ago, the company, which is a major military contractor, bought an early quantum computer from the Canadian company D-Wave Systems. Now Lockheed says it plans to use the computer to create and test complex radar, space and aircraft systems.

The Times reports:

Quantum computing is so much faster than traditional computing because of the unusual properties of particles at the smallest level. Instead of the precision of ones and zeros that have been used to represent data since the earliest days of computers, quantum computing relies on the fact that subatomic particles inhabit a range of states. Different relationships among the particles may coexist, as well. Those probable states can be narrowed to determine an optimal outcome among a near-infinitude of possibilities, which allows certain types of problems to be solved rapidly.

Some possible applications of quantum computers include:

  • Cancer researchers could use it to quickly analyze genetic data.
  • Companies such as Google that are working on self-driving cars could use D-Wave to recognize cars and landmarks.
  • Scientists could use it to determine the behavior of proteins in the human genome, a more difficult task than sequencing the genome itself.

While the promise of quantum computers has yet to be proven, many working in the field are optimistic about upcoming breakthroughs. Peter Lee, the head of Microsoft’s research arm, which is pursuing its own quantum work, told the Times, “There is a sense among top researchers that we’re all in a race.”

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: The New York Times

photo: D-Wave Systems/Wikipedia

— By on March 25, 2013, 11:48 AM PST

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure