By George Johnson

During this remarkably illustrative and carefully obtainable examine essentially the most fascinating frontiers in technology and pcs, award-winning long island occasions author George Johnson unearths the attention-grabbing international of quantum computing—the holy grail of tremendous desktops the place the computing energy of unmarried atoms is harnassed to create machines able to nearly incredible calculations within the blink of an eye.As machine chips proceed to reduce in measurement, scientists expect the top of the line: a working laptop or computer within which every one swap is created from a unmarried atom. this type of machine may function less than a unique set of actual legislation: The legislation of quantum mechanics. Johnson lightly leads the curious outsider in the course of the strangely basic principles had to comprehend this dream, discussing the present kingdom of the revolution, and finally assessing the notable energy those machines may have to alter our global.

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Quantum behavior is masked, so understanding it has not been necessary for survival. What is true for photons is true for all particles: the electrons that hover in the shells of atoms and flow through wires; the protons and neutrons that make up the atomic cores. At any one moment, a particle is not in a precise place but in a super­ position of all its possible locations. Nor does this quantum ambiguity apply only to position. A particle can also be in a superposition in which it spins clockwise and counterclock­ wise, down and up.

For every game it either won, tied, or (as often as not) malfunctioned. But in a platonic world of pure idea it would have been unbeatable. There is more than one way to get Tinkertoys to play tic-tac­ toe. A later, more reliable version (long since dismantled) took an entirely different approach. Tinkertoys were ingeniously assembled into the physical instantiation of a lookup table that gave the best response for each move. In this new system, each of the nine cells was represented by a triplet of digits: a 1 and two Os.

But for all the apparent differences, there is nothing going on inside the mightiest Macintosh or Dell or Compaq­ or for that matter in the supercomputers like Blue Mountain and Q-that cannot be done, in principle, with a stadium full of Geniacs, or even a sprawling contraption made from Tinker- 20 A S H O RT C U T T H R O U G H T I M E toys, like the one in the Boston museum. In the mid- 1970s, a group of computer-science students (including Daniel Hillis, who went on to start a company called Thinking Machines) gathered together more than a hundred Giant Engineer Tinker­ toy sets, assembling the thousands of wooden spokes and spools into a computer that played a mean game of tic-tac-toe.

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