The God Machine: Labs race to build "quantum" computers which could save millions of lives

Rob Waugh
Supercomputer Tianhe-2

In laboratories around the world, researchers and defence companies are already testing a new kind of computer - one which will end the age of silicon chips, and could save millions of lives.

Labs are racing to create a machine that would instantly be the most powerful ever created - capable of cracking any code, and solving any maths problem.

IBM predict that within our lifetimes, a computer will be able to hold as much information as there are atoms in the universe.

Speaking to Yahoo, Colin Stuart, author of The Big Questions in science says that a fully functioning quantum computer could save millions of lives - by inventing drugs in seconds, while at the moment, PCs and supercomputers labour for years.

The key? A phenomenon Einstein himself described as “spooky” - where tiny “entangled” particles can be both there and not there at the same time.

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“A quantum computer could calculate in seconds what a supercomputer - even the fastest on Earth - would take years to,”  says Colin Stuart, author of The Big Questions in Science.

“The strangest thing is that it’s quite possible that one of the reasons they’re so fast is that they’re doing the calculations in multiple universes,” says Stuart.

“It exploits a property of quantum physics,” says Stuart. “At the subatomic level, particles can be in more than one place at a time. Instead of zeroes and ones, computers could think in zeroes, ones and ‘maybes’.

So far, the computers under test at IBM, Lockheed Martin and Google, and universities around the world, work with just a few “qubits” - the tiny particles that can be both one and zero at once.

Stuart is keen to point out, though, that the machines will not be "sentient" - at least in the way humans understand it. Nor would it be able to predict the future. "It definitely couldn't predict the future given enough variables because quantum physics is random and that will always scupper your chances. All you'd be able to say is what is the most likely scenario, not will definitely happen," says Stuart.

Qubits have been described as the “Holy Grail” of computing.

A 250-qubit array would contain more ‘bits’ of information than there are atoms in the entire universe, IBM has claimed.

Normal computers work using strings of ones and zeroes - but because “qubits” can be both, they offer a huge amount more power.

“A normal computer works by having transisotrs that turn on or off,” says Stuart. “In transistors - which we still use - it can be either zero or one. All we have done for decades is make them smaller and smaller and smaller. But we’re hitting a wall where we can’t make them smaller - we already have chips with six million transistors in the size of a full stop.”

The “quantum computers” are huge, bulky machines reminiscent of the first-ever computers, in university labs in the Fifties - but could be the key to saving millions of lives.

They could also crack any code, and solve mathematical problems that have remained out of reach - instantly becoming the most powerful computer ever made.

IBM - who have made components that will work in future “quantum machines” - say that the revolution will happen “in our lifetimes”.

“As far as I can see the most exciting and relevant to everyone application of quantum computing is in biochemistry,

“Specifically in drug design. There are so many different chemicals and compounds out there that can be put together in so many different ways.”

“ A quantum computer could search through all the various possibilities much faster than traditional supercomputers and so has the potential - one day - to bring about a step-change in the medicines available to combat a wide range of illnesses.“

The Big Questions in Science, published by Andre Deutsch, is out in November