New York Times has a pretty good profile of what could be the next big breakthrough in computing – the chips that understand “maybe”:
[A] powerful new type of computer that is about to be commercially deployed by a major American military contractor is taking computing into the strange, subatomic realm of quantum mechanics. In that infinitesimal neighborhood, common sense logic no longer seems to apply. A one can be a one, or it can be a one and a zero and everything in between — all at the same time.
It sounds preposterous, particularly to those familiar with the yes/no world of conventional computing. But academic researchers and scientists at companies like Microsoft, I.B.M. and Hewlett-Packard have been working to develop quantum computers.
Now, Lockheed Martin — which bought an early version of such a computer from the Canadian company D-Wave Systems two years ago — is confident enough in the technology to upgrade it to commercial scale, becoming the first company to use quantum computing as part of its business.
Quantum computing has been a goal of researchers for more than three decades, but it has proved remarkably difficult to achieve. The idea has been to exploit a property of matter in a quantum state known as superposition, which makes it possible for the basic elements of a quantum computer, known as qubits, to hold a vast array of values simultaneously.
There are a variety of ways scientists create the conditions needed to achieve superposition as well as a second quantum state known as entanglement, which are both necessary for quantum computing. Researchers have suspended ions in magnetic fields, trapped photons or manipulated phosphorus atoms in silicon.
The D-Wave computer that Lockheed has bought uses a different mathematical approach than competing efforts. In the D-Wave system, a quantum computing processor, made from a lattice of tiny superconducting wires, is chilled close to absolute zero. It is then programmed by loading a set of mathematical equations into the lattice.
The processor then moves through a near-infinity of possibilities to determine the lowest energy required to form those relationships. That state, seen as the optimal outcome, is the answer.