Computers function by using bits – a particle that is either electrically charged or not charged, representing a 0 or a 1. This is a numbering system like our normal base 10 numbers that we use every day, but instead it is base 2. In base 10 we represent the number twelve as ’12’ – in base 2 we represent the number 12 as ‘1100’. The number 13 would be ‘1101’.
Computers, when their power is turned on, can detect which pieces of itself internally are charged or not charged, which represents numbers, and in turn, letters, or graphics, etc. Simiarly, hard drives have used a similar technique by magnetizing or demagnitizing a place on a piece of metal. When you switch a computer’s power off, the charged states in memory vanish, but the magnetic properties of the hard disks remain.
Thanks to quantum mechanics, hard drives have recently (since the late 1990’s) begun using another propery of electrons to store information – the property of electron ‘spin’, which is either ‘up’ or ‘down’ (the angular momentum). This is why the disk capacity in hard drives has increased so rapidly, and will continue to do so. We have the ability to store store over a trillion bits of information in less than 1 square inch.
However, this does not benefit the computational power of computers themselves so much, other than their ability to access larger pools of information. Interestingly, quantum mechanics is starting to play a larger role within the computer itself.
One of the challenges associated with integrating quantum mechanical principles into the computer itself has been the structural nature of the materials used in creating circuits. The materials have simply been too random and rickety. But recently MIT has developed a new material which they can influence subatomically, making it far more orderly, or, at least, disorderly in a sensible way.
Using this material, not only can we cause computers to operate using our old standard bits, but we’ll also have the ability to work with ‘qubits’, or quantum bits. Here is where the strangeness, and the power, come into play.
Qubits aren’t exactly ‘on’ or ‘off’, but rather they are both simultaneously. If you really must know which it is, you measure it several times to see if it is more predisposed to be in the ‘on’ or ‘off’ state.
If that seems a little odd, or even wasteful, it can be. But taken on our larger scale which seems to demand definitiveness, we can use it to work some rather arcane processes. For example, if you have a register, or range, of qubits you can allow them to interact in multiple states simultaneously through quantum entanglement, ending up with a computational device that processes much larger quantities of information in parallel – or rather, simultaneously.
Not only does this increase the speed of the computations, it also can hugely miminalize the physical size of the material, as well as the power requirements, all by combining the multiple, simultaneous states of existence.
For me, there are few things that exemplify more profoundly the many possibilities that exist, seen and unseen, that somehow comprise our Now.