Most scientists believe the next step in computing will be quantum computers. Quantum computers are fast: they are capable of working a million times faster than a standard PC. There are limitations to quantum computing, though, including issues with keeping a quantum state active at room temperature. (It’s only been previously done for around two seconds.) Recently, though, a team of international scientists smashed that record and created a quantum state that survived for a total of 39 minutes.
In standard computing, information is stored in strings of 0’s and 1’s. With a quantum state, qubits (quantum bits of information) can be both 0’s and 1’s at the same time. This means that multiple calculations can be handled simultaneously. Unfortunately, quantum computers need to operate at almost absolute zero temperatures to sustain a quantum state, which hinders the reality of actually using quantum computers.
In their experiment, the scientists encoded information in phosphorus atoms attached to silicon at almost absolute zero temperatures. They placed the silicon in a magnetic field, creating a state of “superposition.” This creates the state where qubits can exist in multiple states (both 0’s and 1’s) simultaneously. Once scientists raised the temperature to nearly 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius), this quantum state remained for over half an hour. Obviously, 39 minutes doesn’t seem to be a long time. However, a quantum computer is ultrafast: in this given amount of time, it could run over 20 million calculations.
Although you can buy a personal quantum computer now, it is a very limited system. We still haven’t figured out how to place qubits in different quantum states allowing the qubits to communicate with each other, something which is necessary for larger-scale computations. But with companies like Google devoting time and resources to quantum computing, we will soon have computers that say things like: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”