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Waiting for Quantum Computing? Try Probabilistic Computing


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Quantum computing has already inspired a deeper understanding of the role of probability in computing systems.

Credit: Serge Bloch

Computer scientists and engineers have started down a road that could one day lead to a momentous transition: from deterministic computing systems, based on classical physics, to quantum computing systems, which exploit the weird and wacky probabilistic rules of quantum physics. Many commentators have pointed out that if engineers are able to fashion practical quantum computers, there will be a tectonic shift in the sort of computations that become possible.

But that's a big if.

Quantum computers hold great theoretical promise, sure, but the hurdles that need to be overcome to build practical machines are enormous. Some skeptics have argued that the technical challenges are so immense that it's very unlikely that general-purpose quantum computers will become available anytime in the foreseeable future. Others, including the engineers now working very hard to build these machines at Google, IBM, Intel, and elsewhere, are more sanguine, anticipating that 5 or 10 more years of work may be enough to bring the first practical general-purpose quantum computers on line. Only time will tell.

But even if the whole quantum-computing enterprise were to develop far more slowly than its proponents anticipate, one thing seems certain. Quantum computing has already inspired a deeper understanding of the role of probability in computing systems—just as the late physicist Richard Feynman had hoped it would when he brought the idea to people's attention back in the early 1980s.

From IEEE Spectrum
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