A Guide to Quantum Computing

Quantum computers harness some of the mystical phenomena of quantum

mechanics to leapfrog computational power. Quantum machines promise to

outperform today's and tomorrow's most powerful supercomputers. Quantum

computers promise exciting advances in fields ranging from materials science to

pharmaceutical research. Companies are already developing lightweight, powerful

batteries and more for electric vehicles, and are experimenting with them to help

develop new drugs.

The secret to the power of quantum computers lies in their ability to create and

manipulate quantum bits or qubits. Superposition is the counterintuitive ability of

quantum objects, such as electrons, to exist in multiple 'states' at the same time. For

electrons, one of these states is the lowest energy level of the atom and another is

the first excited level. If an electron is prepared by superposing these two states, it

will be in the lower state with a certain probability, and will be in the upper state with

a certain probability. Measurement destroys this superposition and only then can we

say we are in a lower or higher state.

Understanding superposition allows us to understand qubits, the fundamental

information component of quantum computing. In classical computing, a bit is a

transistor that can be turned off or on, corresponding to states 0 and 1. In qubits, like

electrons, 0 and 1 simply correspond to states like the low and high energy levels

Qubits differ from conventional bits, which must always be in the 0

or 1 state, in that they can be in superposition states with different probabilities that

can be manipulated by quantum operations during computation.

Entanglement is a phenomenon in which quantum entities are created and/or

manipulated in such a way that neither can be explained without reference to the

other. Personal identity is lost. This concept is very difficult to conceptualize given

how entanglements exist over long distances. The measurements of one member of

an entangled pair instantly determine the measurements of its partner, making it

appear as if information could travel faster than the speed of light.

This apparent long-range effect was so disturbing that even Einstein called it

"creepy." In practice, quantum computers use the probabilities associated with the

entanglement and superposition between qubits to perform a series of operations

(quantum algorithms) that increase certain probabilities (i.e., the probability of being

correct) and other reduce the probability of to zero. (i.e. of the wrong answer). Taking

the measurement at the end of the calculation maximizes the probability of

measuring the correct answer. The way quantum computers use probability and

entanglement distinguishes them from classical computers.

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