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42 IEEE SPECTRUM February 2001 S trange ideas can come from ordinary places. This one came from Texas. In 1981, John A. Wheeler, the father of the black hole and a theoretical physi- cist at the University of Texas in Austin, threw a party. The guests were all young physicists with a common interest in the foundations of computing, a topic that Wheeler believed—correctly—would become increasingly important in the years to come. It was at this party that a conversation with Charles Bennett, an IBM physicist, sparked an idea in the mind of Oxford Uni- versity researcher David Deutsch. It struck him that computer theory was based on Newton’s laws, not the more fundamental description of the universe provided by quantum theory. At the time, the computer industry was beginning to fret over the future of microchips. How many calculations per second would be ultimately possible, how much heat would this produce, and could silicon survive the constant baking? To help them, computer scientists turned to the theory developed in the 1930s by the pioneer of their field, Alan Turing. But at Wheeler’s party, said Deutsch, “I could see immediately that using the laws [of quantum mechanics] would give a different answer.” Deutsch began work on a paper that is now generally regarded as a classic in the field. Published in 1985, it describes how a computer might run using the strange rules of quantum mechanics and why such a computer differs fundamentally from ordinary computers. Fifteen years later, the revolution that Deutsch started has reached global proportions. Quantum computers are no longer seen as weird curiosities but as the powerful future of the computer industry, and the debate is shifting from whether they will ever become a reality to when they will do so. The excitement is not due to their power, although they undoubt- edly will be more powerful than today’s models. Their big selling point, the killer app if you like, is that they can solve problems and carry out simulations that are basically impos- sible on conventional computers. Such is the potential of these devices that the list of companies funding research programs sounds like a roll call of the world’s biggest telecommunications and com- puter businesses. They include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies, AT&T, and Microsoft. There is even a New York City–based start-up called MagiQ Technologies that hopes to make money by developing intellectual prop- erty in this field. One of the strongest forces driving the development of quan- tum computers is the fear they will crack with ease secret codes that are impervious to other computers. The alarm bells started ringing in 1994, when Peter Shor of AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey showed that quantum computers were far faster than their ordinary brethren at factoring numbers.
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This note was uploaded on 04/10/2008 for the course ECE 2074 taught by Professor Stilwell during the Fall '08 term at Virginia Tech.

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