The cat is out of the box for quantum computing


David J. Wineland, a physicist at the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), gives members of the media a tour of his lab after winning the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics. (Dana Romanoff/GETTY IMAGES)

The world of superfast quantum computing may be here sooner than we thought. By handing out this year's Nobel Prize in Physics to two quantum physicists (American David Wineland and Serge Haroche of France) who have figured out how to measure the properties of quantum particles, Stockholm’s Nobel Prize committee gave new hope to what many physicists have thought might be possible one day: to channel the seemingly magical properties of quantum particles to create super-computing machines that can run a massive amount of calculations in parallel. These so-called quantum computers would be exponentially faster than any computer of today, opening up a brave new era of computational power.

At the heart of the Nobel Prize-winning efforts is a solution to one of the oldest and most famous thought experiments in quantum mechanics: Schrodinger's Cat. As originally proposed by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935, Schrodinger’s Cat is one of the most beloved problems of tech geekdom and has even made its way into popular culture in subtle ways. Due to the properties of quantum particles, which sometimes behave as if they are in two different places simultaneously, the cat is neither alive nor dead until you open the box. Until now, it was only possible to make probabilistic estimations about whether the cat was alive or dead based on indirect observations about the box.

While that may sound confusing (especially if you’re a cat owner), solving the Schrodinger's Cat paradox would be exciting news for quantum physicists. The Nobel Prize winners may have figured out two different ways to determine whether the cat is alive or dead at any point in time without having to open up the box and check.


French physicist Serge Haroche (left) and U.S. physicist David Wineland won the Nobel Prize on October 9, 2012 for work in quantum physics that could one day open the way to revolutionary computers. (CHRISTOPHE LEBEDINSKY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

While many have projected that the earliest test cases of quantum computing will be applied to the most difficult questions of cryptanalysis (enabling the cracking of complex codes in minutes), it’s easy to see how superfast computers would be able to impact nearly any field that relies on crunching massive amounts of data at one time. Imagine pharmaceutical researchers crunching away on medical data to find new cures, geologists crunching away on the Earth’s seismic data to discover new energy sources, and astronomers crunching away on cosmic data to find signs of intelligent life.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, however, before quantum computers become a reality. Even Wineland admitted that his work is more of a "parlor trick" than a true scientific breakthrough for quantum computing. Right now, the most powerful quantum computers in the world are only capable of the most basic calculations, such as the multiplication of two numbers together. Some have suggested that we’re at least a decade away from creating and building a true quantum computer capable of outperforming today’s computers.

Even so, there’s undeniable excitement that we’ve "opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics." Earlier this year, there was excitement about the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle — the so-called "God Particle." This fall, there’s a new massively open online course on Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation from the University of California-Berkeley, which could bring quantum mechanics to the masses, just as last year’s massively open online course from Stanford educated 150,000 people around the world about artificial intelligence. When it comes to quantum computing, the cat, you might say, is finally out of the box.


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Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.

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