Intel and IBM Demo Quantum Computer at CES 2018

John Lister's picture

Intel and IBM are battling to show off some of the most advanced 'quantum computers' ever made. It's a big step towards incredibly powerful computers that could even replicate the workings of a human brain.

A quantum computer takes advantage of one of the most curious aspects of physics: that tiny particles can exist in two different states at the same time. This essentially allows a complete rewrite of the mathematics behind computing.

Ordinary computers work by turning data into binary code: a string of 0s and 1s. In traditional computers, that involves a series of electronic 'gates' that can be open or shut, representing a 0 or a 1. Each 'gate' can therefore represent what's literally a single 'bit' of data. In computing terms, eight bits make up a byte, with larger quantities being be a kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte and so on.

In quantum computers, each 'gate' can actually represent four possible conditions. That's because as well as being either one option or the other, it can also be both options at once, or neither option. This piece of information is known as a qubit rather than a bit.

Quantum Computers Exponentially More Powerful

It might seem as if that makes the computer twice as fast or powerful, but in reality it's much more significant. When an ordinary computer carries out complex or multiple tasks, it can only use a bit of data for one thing at a time. However, a quantum computer can use the same qubit in two different calculations simultaneously.

That benefit soon mounts up. In very simplified terms, you can think of a quantum computer using a single qubit as being twice as powerful as an ordinary computer using a single bit. However, two qubits can provide four times the computing power of two bits, three qubits provide eight times the power of three bits, and so on.

That process increases so rapidly that in theory a quantum computer could be hundreds of millions of times faster than a traditional computer, if not more. Even more useful is that a quantum computer can weigh up multiple options simultaneously. That's something where the human brain still has an advantage over the fastest computer; it also means quantum computers could combine human characteristics we'd call "intelligence," with the sheer speed of a computer.

Tech Is Too Cold To Hold

Intel's latest demonstration of a quantum computer has 49 qubits (compared with 17 in its predecessor), with IBM reportedly topping that with 50 qubits. That's significant as previous forecasts have suggested 50 qubits is the threshold when a quantum computer could not only work faster than even the fastest traditional 'supercomputers', but would be able to tackle tasks that are simply beyond the scope of existing machines, regardless of speed. (Source:

The big limitation right now is temperature. Quantum computers need to run at exceptionally low temperatures to avoid wrecking the 'multi-state' characteristics of the components. For now at least, there's no simple solution as to how this would work in an ordinary business or home setting. (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

What tasks would you like to see quantum computers used for? Are there any ethical or societal issues that arise from quantum computers potentially recreating human intelligence? Will the public ever be won over by the details of how quantum computers work, or is it more important to show what they can actually do?

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gmthomas44_4203's picture

Exactly how does this affect Schrödinger's cat? Is it alive and dead twice? Can the Quantum computer solve this problem twice as fast?