Quantum computers are still years away, but a trio of theorists has already figured out at least one talent they may have. According to the theorists, including one from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), physicists might one day use quantum computers to study the inner workings of the universe in ways that are far beyond the reach of even the most powerful conventional supercomputers.
Quantum computers require technology that may not be perfected for decades, but they hold great promise for solving complex problems. The switches in their processors will take advantage of quantum mechanics — the laws that govern the interaction of subatomic particles. These laws allow quantum switches to exist in both on and off states simultaneously, so they will be able to consider all possible solutions to a problem at once.
This unique talent, far beyond the capability of today’s computers, could enable quantum computers to solve some currently difficult problems quickly, such as breaking complex codes. But they could look at more challenging problems as well.
“We have this theoretical model of the quantum computer, and one of the big questions is, what physical processes that occur in nature can that model represent efficiently?” said Stephen Jordan, a theorist in NIST’s Applied and Computational Mathematics Division. “Maybe particle collisions, maybe the early universe after the Big Bang? Can we use a quantum computer to simulate them and tell us what to expect?”
Questions like these involve tracking the interaction of many different elements, a situation that rapidly becomes too complicated for today’s most powerful computers.