How Computers WorkComputers function by storing data in a binary number format, which result in a series of 1s & 0s retained in electronic components such as transistors. Each component of computer memory is called a bit and can be manipulated through the steps of Boolean logic so that the bits change, based upon the algorithms applied by the computer program, between the 1 and 0 modes (sometimes referred to as "on" and "off").
How a Quantum Computer Would WorkA quantum computer, on the other hand, would store information as either a 1, 0, or a quantum superposition of the two states. Such a "quantum bit," called a qubit, allows for far greater flexibility than the binary system.
Specifically, a quantum computer would be able to perform calculations on a far greater order of magnitude than traditional computers ... a concept which has serious concerns and applications in the realm of cryptography & encryption. Some fear that a successful & practical quantum computer would devastate the world's financial system by ripping through their computer security encryptions, which are based on factoring large numbers that literally cannot be cracked by traditional computers within the life span of the universe. A quantum computer, on the other hand, could factor the numbers in a reasonable period of time.
To understand how this speeds things up, consider this example. If the qubit is in a superposition of the 1 state and the 0 state, and it performed an calculation with another qubit in the same superposition, then one calculation actually obtains 4 results: a 1/1 result, a 1/0 result, a 0/1 result, and a 0/0 result. This is a result of the mathematics applied to a quantum system when in a state of decoherence, which lasts while it is in a superposition of states until it collapses down into one state. The ability of a quantum computer to perform multiple computations simultaneously (or in parallel, in computer terms) is called quantum parallelism).
The exact physical mechanism at work within the quantum computer is somewhat theoretically complex and intuitively disturbing. Generally, it is explained in terms of the multi-world interpretation of quantum physics, wherein the computer performs calculations not only in our universe but also in other universes simultaneously, while the various qubits are in a state of quantum decoherence. (While this sounds far fetched, the multi-world interpretation has been shown to make predictions which match experimental results. Other physicists have )
History of Quantum ComputingQuantum computing tends to trace its roots back to a 1959 speech by Richard P. Feynman in which he spoke about the effects of miniaturization, including the idea of exploiting quantum effects to create more powerful computers. (This speech is also generally considered the starting point of nanotechnology.)
Of course, before the quantum effects of computing could be realized, scientists and engineers had to more fully develop the technology of traditional computers. This is why, for many years, there was little direct progress, nor even interest, in the idea of making Feynman's suggestions into reality.
In 1985, the idea of "quantum logic gates" was put forth by University of Oxford's David Deutsch, as a means of harnessing the quantum realm inside a computer. In fact, Deutsch's paper on the subject showed that any physical process could be modeled by a quantum computer.
Nearly a decade later, in 1994, AT&T's Peter Shor devised an algorith that could use only 6 qubits to perform some basic factorizations ... more cubits the more complex the numbers requiring factorization became, of course.
A handful of quantum computers have been built. The first, a 2-qubit quantum computer in 1998, could perform trivial calculations before losing decoherence after a few nanoseconds. In 2000, teams successfully built both a 4-qubit and a 7-qubit quantum computer. Research on the subject is still very active, although some physicists and engineers express concerns over the difficulties involved in upscaling these experiments to full-scale computing systems. Still, the success of these initial steps do show that the fundamental theory is sound.
Difficulties with Quantum ComputersThe quantum computer's main drawback is the same as its strength: quantum decoherence. The qubit calculations are performed while the quantum wave function is in a state of superposition between states, which is what allows it to perform the calculations using both 1 & 0 states simultaneously.
However, when a measurement of any type is made to a quantum system, decoherence breaks down and the wave function collapses into a single state. Therefore, the computer has to somehow continue making these calculations without having any measurements made until the proper time, when it can then drop out of the quantum state, have a measurement taken to read its result, which then gets passed on to the rest of the system.
The physical requirements of manipulating a system on this scale are considerable, touching on the realms of superconductors, nanotechnology, and quantum electronics, as well as others. Each of these is itself a sophisticated field which is still being fully developed, so trying to merge them all together into a functional quantum computer is a task which I don't particularly envy anyone ... except for the person who finally succeeds.