First proposed in the 1970s, quantum computing relies on quantum physics by taking advantage of certain quantum physics properties of atoms or nuclei that allow them to work together as quantum bits, or qubits, to be the computer's processor and memory. By interacting with each other while being isolated from the external environment, qubits can perform certain calculations exponentially faster than conventional computers. Qubits do not rely on the traditional binary nature of computing. While traditional computers encode information into bits using binary numbers, either a 0 or 1, and can only do calculations on one set of numbers at once, quantum computers encode information as a series of quantum-mechanical states such as spin directions of electrons or polarization orientations of a photon that might represent a 1 or a 0, might represent a combination of the two or might represent a number expressing that the state of the qubit is somewhere between 1 and 0, or a superposition of many different numbers at once. A quantum computer can do an arbitrary reversible classical computation on all the numbers simultaneously, which a binary system cannot do, and also has some ability to produce interference between various different numbers. By doing a computation on many different numbers at once, then interfering the results to get a single answer, a quantum computer has the potential to be much more powerful than a classical computer of the same size. In using only a single processing unit, a quantum computer can naturally perform myriad operations in parallel. Quantum computing is not well suited for tasks such as word processing and email, but it is ideal for tasks such as cryptography and modeling and indexing very large databases. Combining physics, mathematics and computer science, quantum computing has developed in the past two decades from a visionary idea to one of the most fascinating areas of quantum mechanics. The recent excitement in this lively and speculative domain of research was triggered by Peter Shor (1994) who showed how a quantum algorithm could exponentially “speed-up” classical computation and factor large numbers into primes much more rapidly (at least in terms of the number of computational steps involved) than any known classical algorithm. Shor's algorithm was soon followed by several other algorithms that aimed to solve combinatorial and algebraic problems, and in the last few years theoretical study of quantum systems serving as computational devices has achieved tremendous progress. Common belief has it that the implementation of Shor's algorithm on a large scale quantum computer would have devastating consequences for current cryptography protocols which rely on the premise that all known classical worst-case algorithms for factoring take time exponential in the length of their input (see, e.g., Preskill 2005). Consequently, experimentalists around the world are engaged in tremendous attempts to tackle the technological difficulties that await the realization of such a large scale quantum computer. But regardless whether these technological problems can be overcome (Unruh 1995, Ekert and Jozsa 1996, Haroche and Raimond 1996), it is noteworthy that no proof exists yet for the general superiority of quantum computers over their classical counterparts. The philosophical interest in quantum computing is threefold: First, from a social-historical perspective, quantum computing is a domain where experimentalists find themselves ahead of their fellow theorists. Indeed, quantum mysteries such as entanglement and nonlocality were historically considered a philosophical quibble, until physicists discovered that these mysteries might be harnessed to devise new efficient algorithms. But while the technology for isolating 5 or even 7 qubits (the basic unit of information in the quantum computer) is now within reach (Schrader et al. 2004, Knill et al. 2000), only a handful of...
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