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01:55 PM

Quantum's Next Leap

Quantum computing may still be far from reality, but the idea is getting a very real financial boost from the government

A couple decades from now, quantum computers could lock down electronic signals coming from Boeing's airliners and fighter jets, says Gary Fitzmire, VP of engineering and IT in Boeing's Phantom Works advanced R&D unit. Fitzmire and his team have been logging their own frequent-flier miles in pursuit of knowledge: One technologist went to Darpa's Falls Church meeting; Fitzmire, who's based in St. Louis, attended a Darpa conference in Southern California in March and recently paid a visit to Cambridge University's physics department to bone up on plans. "When we want to send data wirelessly from an F-18 or AWACs [radar-surveillance plane], we think there's some promise inside quantum computing to boost our information assurance," Fitzmire says. "We don't want these signals jammed or eavesdropped on."

Darpa describes Foqus only as a possibility. A bid for scientists to participate will likely come "sometime in the near future," a spokeswoman says. The agency is interested in quantum computing for its potential to help understand ultrasecure communications and superaccurate calibration, she says.

The potential rewards are so great, Microsoft has hired prize-winning mathematician Michael Freedman to explore the theoretical possibilities of building and programming a quantum computer. "What's going to be on your desktop in 30 years?" asks Jennifer Chayes, manager of Microsoft Research's theory group, which studies mathematics, physics, and theoretical computer science and employs Freedman. "Or painted on the wall, in your bracelet, or in your phone? Let's hope it's much more powerful than today. If the new paradigm is going to be quantum computing, we want to make sure Microsoft is there. We want to say something about how these things are built."

Carl Williams -- Photo by David Deal

NIST's Williams warns companies not to miss the boat on quantum computing.

Photo by David Deal
What isn't clear is whether quantum computers of useful size actually can be built in our universe. It's even unclear whether the theoretical constructs--the physics of quantum mechanics and our concept of the algorithms that could be run on them--are correct. "Everything at the moment is very rudimentary, but they're the key steps to building something more complicated," says Carl Williams, chief of the atomic physics division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which sets U.S. measurement and timekeeping standards. "Which is going to be the technology that wins in building this new type of computer? I think that's unknown."

The notion of constructing a computer that behaved according to the laws of quantum physics arose in the early 1980s, when the late Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner at the California Institute of Technology, postulated that the only way to simulate a quantum mechanical system--one in which particles can spin clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time--was with a computer that itself behaved that way. A big breakthrough came in 1994 when Peter Shor, a researcher at AT&T's Bell Labs in New Jersey, showed in an algorithm how a quantum computer theoretically could quickly find the factors of large numbers. Since the codes that protect military and financial secrets are based on the inability to do that, government money began flowing into quantum-computing research.

According to people familiar with Foqus, the Darpa program is expected to be more ambitious than past programs in the amount of funding and freedom given to researchers. Those include a 3-year-old, $100 million Darpa program called Quist and another government program at Advanced Research Development Activity, a research arm for U.S. intelligence organizations, that IBM's Amer describes as "methodical and conservative." The National Science Foundation also funds quantum-computing research by individual scientists.

Engineers no doubt will continue wringing performance gains out of silicon chips. But the computing industry knows it can't keep shrinking the size of the electronics on those chips forever. As components approach the nanoscale, power leakage and heat start to hold back performance.

Quantum computers aren't the only potential successors to silicon-based ones. Hewlett-Packard is researching a branch of nanotechnology it calls molecular electronics to exploit quantum effects in nanoscale materials to build more-efficient computers. Researchers at the University of Southern California first used reactions of DNA molecules in a test tube a decade ago to carry out steps to solve a computational problem. Two weeks ago, Israeli scientists said they had programmed a DNA computer to detect signs of cancer.

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