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Quantum computing could change the world. It could transform medicine, break encryption and revolutionise communications and artificial intelligence. Companies like IBM, Microsoft and Google are racing to build reliable quantum computers. China has invested billions.
Recently, Google claimed that it had achieved quantum supremacy – the first time a quantum computer has outperformed a traditional one. But what is quantum computing? And how does it work?
Let’s start with the basics.
An ordinary computer chip uses bits. These are like tiny switches, that can either be in the off position – represented by a zero – or in the on position – represented by a one. Every app you use, website you visit and photograph you take is ultimately made up of millions of these bits in some combination of ones and zeroes.
This works great for most things, but it doesn’t reflect the way the universe actually works. In nature, things aren’t just on or off. They’re uncertain. And even our best supercomputers aren’t very good at dealing with uncertainty. That’s a problem.
That’s because, over the last century, physicists have discovered when you go down to a really small scale, weird things start to happen. They’ve developed a whole new field of science to try and explain them. It’s called quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics is the foundation of physics, which underlies chemistry, which is the foundation of biology. So for scientists to accurately simulate any of those things, they need a better way of making calculations that can handle uncertainty. Enter, quantum computers.
How do quantum computers work?
Instead of bits, quantum computers use qubits. Rather than just being on or off, qubits can also be in what’s called ‘superposition’ – where they’re both on and off at the same time, or somewhere on a spectrum between the two.
Take a coin. If you flip it, it can either be heads or tails. But if you spin it – it’s got a chance of landing on…
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