Tech: Computer says . . . well, maybe

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Computers nowadays do pretty many things, like driving a car, providing informational support, and playing games with people, often winning. But in fact, a computer is just a machine that processes data and works according to algorithms coded by humans. They answer yes or no to your questions, or give the information that is in their databases.

In 2013, Google representatives announced they are developing a computer that might answer “maybe” to your question. They were collaborating with NASA in creating a quantum machine named D-Wave 2 that would process data 100 million times faster than ordinary computers. This summer, engineers from Google renewed the talks about the machine, aiming at “quantum supremacy”. And the most surprising thing is that, according to the last month’s issue of New Scientist, the super machine may be ready to be presented by the end of 2017.

Quantum physics is notoriously mindbending stuff. At the atomic and subatomic level, the world is a very uncertain place. Quantum processors could theoretically harness this uncertainty to solve in a flash problems that would take traditional computers thousands of years to plod through.

Quantum computing could accelerate the discovery of new medicines and materials, and lead to vastly more powerful artificial intelligence systems in self-driving cars and virtual assistants.

It could cause problems too. Online shopping and banking rely on encryption that a quantum computer could blast through in seconds. Luckily, there’s no need to panic just yet. A mass-market quantum computer is a decade or more away, and some academics think that scaling up quantum computing to tackle real-world problems will prove impossible.

For one thing, quantum machines use superconducting processors cooled close to absolute zero (–273C). They are like digital computers in the 1940s: a smart idea but unreliable and astronomically expensive.

That won’t stop big technology companies trying to build one. One way or another, computing is about to become far more uncertain than ever before.

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