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Why quantum computing matters

The nation that takes the lead in quantum will stake a pole position for the future.

A new government initiative will direct hundreds of millions of dollars to support new centers for quantum computing research.

Why it matters: Quantum information science represents the next leap forward for computing, opening the door to powerful machines that can help provide answers to some of our most pressing questions.

Details: The five new quantum research centers — established in national labs across the country — are part of a $1 billion White House program announced Wednesday morning that includes seven institutes that will explore different facets of AI, including precision agriculture and forecast prediction.

“The future of American prosperity and national security will be shaped by how we invest, research, develop and deploy these cutting-edge technologies today,” said U.S. chief technology officer Michael Kratsios.

How it works: While AI is better known and increasingly integrated into our daily lives — hey, Siri — quantum computing is just as important, promising huge leaps forward in computer processing power.

Quantum computing harnesses the esoteric workings of quantum mechanics. While conventional or classical computers manipulate binary bits — the electrical or optical pulses representing 1s and os — to perform computation, quantum computers use what are known as qubits.

Qubits are subatomic particles like electrons or photons, and thanks to quantum mechanics, they can represent numerous possible combinations between 1 and 0. The ability to exist simultaneously in multiple states is called superposition, and it means a quantum computer — unlike a classical one — can compute huge numbers of potential outcomes simultaneously.

Pairs of qubits can be entangled, meaning that they exist in a single quantum state, and changing the state of one qubit in the pair will instantaneously alter the state of its partner, even if they’re separated by vast distances. While classical computers only double their processing power when they double their bits, entanglement means that quantum computers exponentially increase their power as they add qubits.

Of note: Albert Einstein famously hated the concept of entanglement, describing it as “spooky action at a distance.” But the idea has held up over decades of research in quantum science.

Quantum computers won’t replace classical ones wholesale — in part because the process of manipulating quantum particles is still highly tricky — but as they develop, they’ll open up new frontiers in computing.

Cryptography: The sheer processing power of quantum computers means that at some point in the near future, they’ll be able to unlock all known digital encryption — which is why there’s an…

Bryan Walsh

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