Quantum computers promise to perform calculations believed to be impossible for ordinary computers. Some of those calculations are of great real-world importance. For example, certain widely used encryption methods could be cracked given a computer capable of breaking a large number into its component factors within a reasonable length of time. Virtually all encryption methods used for highly sensitive data are vulnerable to one quantum algorithm or another.
The extra power of a quantum computer comes about because it operates on information represented as qubits, or quantum bits, instead of bits. An ordinary classical bit can be either a 0 or a 1, and standard microchip architectures enforce that dichotomy rigorously. A qubit, in contrast, can be in a so-called superposition state, which entails proportions of 0 and 1 coexisting together. One can think of the possible qubit states as points on a sphere. The north pole is a classical 1, the south pole a 0, and all the points in between are all the possible superpositions of 0 and 1 [see "Rules for a Complex Quantum World," by Michael A. Nielsen; Scientific American, November 2002]. The freedom that qubits have to roam across the entire sphere helps to give quantum computers their unique capabilities.
This article was originally published with the title Computing with Quantum Knots.