MadSci Network: Computer Science

Re: Quantum computers in the year 2040

Date: Sun Dec 24 12:49:44 2000
Posted By: Eric Maass, Director, semiconductors / communication products
Area of science: Computer Science
ID: 975219454.Cs

One of the neat things about science fiction is that you don't really
need to predict the future, nor do you need to come up with the most
likely scenario for the future and use that as the background for your
novel. You can make your own set of assumptions regarding technology
breakthroughs and how society and people will respond to them.

So, as I attempt to give my best guesses and provide some reasoning
for those guesses, feel free to either accept what I come up with - or
reject it, and come up with a new set of assumptions that will make
your science fiction novel exciting and thought provoking based on the
what-ifs it posits!

The quantum computer was proposed by the physicist, Richard Feynman,
in 1982. The quantum computer is different from a digital computer in
that a quantum bit , Qbit, can represent a range of values between 0
and 1 : 
(previous Mad Scientist Answer: What is a qbit when we talk about
quantum computers...)

Engineers and scientist are great at pursuing challenges and
breakthough achievements that seem impossible. Yes, I think that a
quantum computer will be demonstrated well before 2040. In fact, there
is already a claim that a quantum computer (just two quantum bits) has
been demonstrated: EE Times Techsearch article.  The question is - will 
the quantum computer grow beyond a laboratory curiosity, beyond being the 
subject of several published articles? Will it become useful, will it become a
widespread product used by a large number of people?

In order for the quantum computer to grow beyond laboratory curiosity,
it will have to reach a reasonable cost, it will have to successfully
compete against other technologies, or have a desirable application
that other technologies cannot address.  So far, theoretical studies
indicate that a quantum computer could excel at factoring large
numbers.  This is important - but probably not a sufficiently major
application advantage to supplant other computer technologies.  The
quantum computer will most likely be competing against the evolution
of the digital computers we have today.  That's quite heavy
competition. Digital computers have been increasing in speed
phenomenally (over 1 GHz computers?  How can we get data in fast
enough to feed the beasts?). People now seem to need 30 Gigabytes of
hard drive.  That's enough room to store about 60 complete sets of
encyclopedias.  Frankly, it will be hard for another technology to
overtake the evolution of computers at this point - the rate of
progress is so great, the learning curve is so steep, it is hard to
compete against.

But, what allows the computers to evolve is the improvement in
semiconductor processing technology. The computer is made up of
integrated circuits, interconnected transistors that are made using
semiconductor processing technology.  The key to the evolution is the
shrinking of the transistors and the interconnects. In 1980, the
typical geometry of a transistor (the gate length) was about 3 to 5
microns.  Now, that gate length is typically about .18 microns, moving
quickly towards .13 microns. The smallest transistor made in a lab is
about 50 nanometer in gate length. Since the density of atoms in
silicon is about 50 atoms per cubic nanometer, an electron moving
across this 50 nanometer gate length is only going to encounter a few
hundred silicon atoms. This is getting into the realm where quantum
mechanics dominate, and where the electron is and whether it will
proceed is subject to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and other
concepts of quantum mechanics.

In other, 2040, the straightforward evolution of
semiconductor processing could arguably make the normal computers
effectively "quantum computers".

Here are links for more information on quantum computers:
* Fun Physics
* IBM Quantum Computation
* Quantum Computing Links
* Scientific American - Quantum Computing with Molecules
* Quantum Computing and Shor's Algorithm
* Tutorials and FAQ's

On to your second question : how far do you think computers will have
penetrated our daily life?  I believe that, in the past 10 years,
computers have penetrated our daily life to an amazing extent. A large
number of people in industrialized countries - perhaps even a majority
of us - use computers in their job.  A large number of people surf the
web, chat, listen to music, watch videos, or play games on the
computer as activities and entertainment outside work.  Well before
2040, the challenge may well be to find parts of our lives that are
not penetrated by computers.  Alternatively, we may find ways to
accept the computers and make them enhance virtually all aspects to
our lives.  I can imagine us having computers that we can comfortably
wear while we are exercising, running, so we can keep up with things,
explore, learn new things, or be entertained while jogging. The
current status of these are called "wearable computing": M I T Wearable
Computing Web page

So, perhaps computers will be an accepted part of our daily lives and
activities, to the point where we take them for granted. It will be
just like wearing glasses and shoes, just like using pens and paper at
work - all of which were major technological advances at some point in
human history, but are considered normal, nothing to get excited
about, today.

There will be some advancement in our interfaces to computers. Most
likely, the outputs will be refinements of existing approaches today,
where we use our own senses.  Perhaps we will wear something like
glasses or contact lens which include a small display that we can look
into and see a larger, virtual display (the magic of optics - you can
see virtual images that are much larger than the actual can
look in a small opening and see something that looks as large as a
stadium). We may wear earpieces or something that touches our jaws
that allow us to hear.

By contrast, the input devices will be more than refinements. Frankly,
typing inputs into a computer is just a clunky way to input data and
ask for information. Certainly, the first innovation - already
happening - will be voice recognition, where you can ask the computer
for what you want. Nonetheless, this is still slow - we talk at a very
slow rate, even slower than we type...well, at least for many people,
perhaps not all...

Eventually, we will have ways to enter information directly by
thought. This will enable what I call Virtual Telepathy and Virtual
Telekinesis.  We will wear something like caps that enable sensors to
capture our thoughts, process them, and determine what information we
want, what we would like to say and to whom, what things we would like
to have happen...and will try to supply that information, transmit our
thoughts to that person, and try to do what we would like to have
happen.  I would be glad to elaborate on this concept with you...I am
gathering information on the possibility of Virtual Telepathy and
Virtual Telekinesis now, determining what technological breakthroughs
are needed, and what research labs are currently working towards those
technological breakthroughts.

On your third question, nanoengines. Yes, we will have nanoengines by
that point. Depending on your definition, we pretty much have
nanoengines now. Cornell engineers claim they had a nanoengine working
for 40 minutes:  Scientific American - molecular motor The question is, what will
we use nanoengines for?

Please feel free to email me at I love science
fiction, and would be glad to brainstorm some more about the future of

Best regards,
Eric Maass

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