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Wednesday, September 9, 1998 Published at 22:41 GMT 23:41 UK


Blast-off for atomic computer

Computers of the future could make many times more calculations

Scientists have taken a step forward in the development of a computer that uses the fundamental structure of the atom to make calculations. Our science editor Dr David Whitehouse reports.

Someone once said that if you are not shocked when you first encounter with Quantum theory then you do not really understand it.

It was developed earlier this century, one of the three great revolutions in physics that transformed 20th century science. It states, simply, that everything comes in lumps.

Light, matter, energy and even time itself come in packets called quanta. What is more these quanta behave in weird ways.

'Most interesting'

The quanta are not simple lumps of energy but a strange combination of particles and waves. Neither the one nor the other - but at the same time both.

Understanding the quantum theory has enabled many insights to be made into the fundamental nature of the universe. It may also be the basis for computers that are far faster than those at work today.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers have developed a crude quantum computer based on manipulating the spin of certain molecules.

According to physicist Raymond Laflamme, "this is the most interesting proof that quantum computing is not just a crazy idea".

Great potential

Today's computers make calculations using a binary system of ones and zeros. Quantum computers use more than these binary states and can make many calculations at the same time.

This is just the very early stage of the quantum computer and any crude working machine must be years away. But it is a field of research with great potential.

Information could be encoded in single atoms producing the key element in a computer that has the potential to be thousands of times faster than those in operation today.

Current processors compute by sending pulses of electricity through silicon chips to represent ones and zeros. Quantum computation would involve the manipulation of the spins of atoms by pulses of radiation.

"You can do things that you never thought you would be able to do," writes Laflamme. "The rules change, you are not working with the classical rules but the quantum mechanical rules now."

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