Quantum Computing


Computer Science; System-Level Programming; Computer Engineering


Quantum computing is an emerging field of computer engineering that uses charged particles rather than silicon electrical circuitry to process signals. Existing quantum computers are only in the experimental stage. Engineers believe that quantum computing has the potential to advance far beyond the limitations of traditional computing technology.



Quantum computing is an emerging field of computing that uses subatomic particles rather than silicon circuitry to transmit signals and perform calculations. Quantum physics studies particle behavior at the subatomic scale. At extremely small scales, subatomic particles such as photons (the basic unit of light) exhibit properties of both particles and waves simultaneously. This phenomenon, called wave-particle duality, gives subatomic particles unique properties. Traditional computer algorithms are constrained by the physical properties of digital electrical signals. Engineers working on quantum computing hope that quantum algorithms, based on the unique properties of quantum mechanics, will be able to complete computations faster and more efficiently.

Digital computing uses electrical signals to create binary data. Binary digits, called bits, have two possible values: 0 or 1. Digital computers also use logic gates. These are electronic circuits that process bits of data by amplifying or changing signals. Logic gates in digital computers accept one or more inputs and produce only one output. In quantum computing, digital bits are replaced by quantum bits (qubits). Qubits are created by manipulating subatomic particles.

Quantum computing uses quantum bits (qubits). Classic bits can be in one of two states, 0 or 1, but qubits can be in state 0, state 1, or superstate 01. EBSCO illustration.

Quantum computing uses quantum bits (qubits). Classic bits can be in one of two states, 0 or 1, but qubits can be in state 0, state 1, or superstate 01.
EBSCO illustration.

Quantum particles also display a property known as entanglement. This is when two or more particles are linked in such a way that changing the state of one particle changes the state of the other(s), even after they are physically separated. Entanglement could potentially allow for the development of quantum computers that can instantly transmit information across great distances and physical barriers.


Current designs for quantum computers use energetic particles such as electrons or photons as qubits. The states of these particles are altered using quantum logic gates, much like digital logic gates alter electrical signals. A quantum gate may operate using energy from lasers, electromagnetic fields, or several other methods. These state changes can then be used to calculate data.

One avenue of research is the potential derivation of qubits from ion traps. Ions are atoms that have lost or gained one or more electrons. Ion traps use electric and magnetic fields to catch, keep, and arrange ions.


As of 2016, the practical value of quantum computing had only been demonstrated for a small set of potential applications. One such application is Shor's algorithm, created by mathematician Peter Shor, which involves the mathematical process of factorization. Factorization is used to find two unknown prime numbers that, when multiplied together, give a third known number. Shor's algorithm uses the properties of quantum physics to speed up factorization. It can perform the calculation twice as fast as a standard algorithm. Researchers have also demonstrated that quantum algorithms might improve the speed and accuracy of search engines. However, research in this area is incomplete, and the potential benefits remain unclear.

There are significant challenges to overcome before quantum computing could become mainstream. Existing methods for controlling quantum states and manipulating particles require highly sensitive materials and equipment. Scientists working on quantum computers argue that they may make the biggest impact in technical sciences, where certain math and physics problems require calculations so extensive that solutions could not be found even with all of the computer resources on the planet. Special quantum properties, such as entanglement and superposition, mean that qubits may be able to perform parallel computing processes that would be impractical or improbable with traditional computer technology.

—Micah L. Issitt

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