~e; Quantum Weirdness

From human being <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Sun, 6 Apr 2003 00:46:30 -0600

[this book review describes quantum computing in an
accessible way, for those like myself who are still trying
to conceptualize it in relation to the computers of today.
there are several conceptual parallels, it seems, to how
quantum computers might function: where superposition
may be, in some way, like a state of suspended paradox.

one of the most direct analogies to hardware, accurately
or vastly inaccurate, that comes to mind is of a computing
device using 'punch cards' and that was used for statistics
and probability studies (i'm guessing), where the physical
output of the punch cards would be determined by a wire
which would snake through the punched holes in the many
cards, forming a curve. at least this is how it explanations
seem to indicate how these (IBM?) machines used to work.
it is wondered if each punchcard could be analogous to an
set of atoms or particles, throughout computation. in any
case, this book review describes the quantum spookiness.]

'A Shortcut Through Time': Quantum Weirdness

April 6, 2003


If you take a word for a perfectly ordinary activity and
stick ''quantum'' in front of it, you get something that
sounds mysterious and powerful -- or perhaps bogus. I have
no idea what ''quantum healing'' or ''quantum creativity''
or ''quantum investing'' might be about. I have, however,
heard quite a bit about ''quantum computing.''

The idea seems to have been born in the early 1980's in the
mind of the physicist Richard Feynman. Since then,
grandiose claims have been made for the quantum computer.
In 1995, Discover magazine said it ''would in some sense be
the ultimate computer, less a machine than a force of
nature.'' One proponent, David Deutsch, maintains that
quantum computing can prove the reality of parallel
universes. The physicist and mathematician Sir Roger
Penrose, in a couple of best-selling books, has linked it
to the secret of human consciousness. Quantum computing
would seem mysterious and powerful indeed, assuming it is
not bogus. So one wants to know: Has anyone ever built a
quantum computer? How are quantum computers supposed to
work? And, most important, what could one do for me?

Responding to a challenge posed by a magazine editor,
George Johnson has written a blessedly slim book, ''A
Shortcut Through Time,'' that gets across the gist of
quantum computing with plenty of charm and no tears.
Computer science is hard; quantum mechanics is weird. But
Johnson, who contributes science articles to The New York
Times and is the author of four previous popularizations,
explains it all with Tinkertoys and clocks and spinning
tops and just a little arithmetic. It's a briskly told
story, driven entirely by ideas. Only when I got to the end
of it did I realize that I wasn't quite as excited about
the advent of the quantum computer as the author felt I
should be.

All computers, regardless of their hardware, embody the
same idea: information -- numbers, words, images, sounds --
can be represented by anything that can be in one of two
distinct states. A switch that can be either in the on or
in the off position will do the trick. In the most powerful
conventional computers, these switches are tiny silicon
transistors. Each switch represents a binary digit, or
''bit.'' The more switches you have, the bigger the numbers
that can be represented. Ten switches, for instance, can
represent any one of the numbers from 0 to 1,023.

Now consider a quantum computer. Quantum theory explains
how the world works at the atomic level. One of its many
incomprehensible features is that it allows things to be in
two contrary states at the same time. An atom, for example,
can spin like a top. You'd think a given atom would have to
be spinning either clockwise or counterclockwise. But
quantum theory tells us that if you hit an atom with a
pulse of light of the right duration, it will enter a
''superposition'' in which it is doing both.

Suppose we think of the atom as a switch, with clockwise
spin meaning ''off'' and counterclockwise spin meaning
''on.'' Then a single spinning atom can represent 0 and 1
at the same time. A row of 10 such quantum bits, or
''qubits,'' can therefore be made to store not just one
number from 0 to 1,023 but all of these numbers

Superposition is not the only magic that this new kind of
computer relies on. There's also ''entanglement.'' Quantum
particles are said to be entangled when their fates are
inextricably linked; if one is spinning clockwise, say, the
other one has to be spinning counterclockwise. (Einstein
regarded this as ''spooky.'') In a quantum computer, such
dependencies are in effect the wiring among the switches.
Thanks to superposition and entanglement, you can, by
zapping our row of 10 spinning atoms with a laser gun, do a
computation on all 1,024 numbers at a single stroke. It is
this amazing quantum parallelism that affords what Johnson
calls ''a shortcut through time.''

But when the computation is over, how do you read the
results? Since you started with a great big mixture of
questions, you're left with a great big mixture of answers.
And quantum theory says you can't see each of them
individually. When you try to measure a quantum system, the
superposition collapses, and one of the answers pops out at
random; the rest are destroyed.

To get around this restriction, the quantum computer
exploits a third kind of quantum weirdness, called
''interference.'' The multiple answers held in
superposition -- which are sometimes thought of, rather
extravagantly, as existing in multiple universes -- must be
made to interfere with one another. Some answers are
mutually reinforcing; others tend to cancel. With the right
kind of massaging by laser pulses, the superposition
collapses to a final result that reveals something about
all of the parallel computations.

That's how a quantum computer works in principle. In
practice, there are two problems: the hardware and the
software. First, the hardware. The guts of a quantum
computer would certainly be compact: a single molecule of
13 atoms strung together, too tiny to see with a
microscope, could outpace Blue Mountain, the supercomputer
covering a quarter of an acre and used at Los Alamos
National Laboratory to simulate nuclear explosions. So far,
however, the record size for a quantum computer (set in
1999) is only seven atoms, and the researchers could get
the little machine to hang together for only half a second
-- just long enough to execute a couple of hundred
computational steps. Quantum computers don't have to be
made of atoms; any particle that can be manipulated into a
superposition of two states will do for a qubit. (One
rather exotic version mentioned by Johnson has been
described as ''a computer in a cup of coffee.'') But all
the technologies tried have proved extremely fragile.

That leaves quantum computer scientists, as one of them put
it, ''writing the software for a device that does not yet
exist.'' But the software side is tricky too. If a quantum
computer streaks past a classical computer in power gained,
it limps behind in flexibility. You can't just sit down and
write a quantum program that would, say, model the weather.
Because quantum logic will not let you look at intermediate
answers without destroying the computation, even getting a
quantum computer to accomplish something as simple as
factoring a number into its divisors needs a touch of

Yet in 1994, Peter Shor, a mathematician at Bell Labs,
created a lot of excitement by managing to do just that.
Johnson gives a heroically lucid account of how ''Shor's
algorithm'' works, and he also explains why it is
potentially dangerous: it could be used to crack the codes
that secure electronic communications. These codes rely on
the practical impossibility of factoring very large
numbers. To break a number with 400 digits down into its
constituents, for example, would take the fastest
conventional supercomputer billions of years.

For a quantum computer programmed with Shor's algorithm,
this could be the work of a moment. Destroying our ability
to encrypt messages could be the ''killer app'' of quantum
computing. But Johnson also describes a new kind of quantum
cryptography, related to quantum computing, that would
restore the security of communications.

So where does that leave us? What benefits would the
quantum computer bring? Here it is worth reminding
ourselves of something important by saying it together,
loudly and slowly: a quantum computer can't do anything
that a conventional computer can't do, given enough time.
(All right, there is one exception: a quantum computer,
unlike a deterministic conventional one, can produce
genuinely random numbers.) Its advantage is the speed that
arises from parallelism.

Johnson gives a clear account of how this speed would allow
the quantum computer to handle certain problems that grow
very fast in complexity, like factoring large numbers. Yet,
he concedes, it looks unlikely that quantum parallelism can
breach the complexity class containing the problem of the
proverbial traveling salesman (who is looking for the
shortest itinerary through a list of cities) and the
problem of protein folding in the cell -- let alone the
still harder class into which mathematical theorem proving
and (probably) chess playing fall. So it is doubtful that
the quantum computer will usher in ''a mathematical

Even if it's not about to change the world, quantum
computing -- lying at the intersection of physics,
mathematics, computability theory and even philosophy --
still has enormous intellectual richness. In this little
book, Johnson succeeds in showing us both where it is and
how rapidly it's progressing. The man should be arrested
for violating Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

Jim Holt writes the Egghead column for


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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