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The Limits of Quantum Computers

Quantum computers would be exceptionally fast at a few specific tasks, but it appears that for most problems they would outclass today's computers only modestly. This realization may lead to a new fundamental physical principle
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ILLUSTRATION BY DUSAN PETRICIC

Haggar Physicists Develop ‘Quantum Slacks,’ ” read a headline in the satirical weekly the Onion. By exploiting a bizarre “Schrödinger’s Pants” duality, the article explained, these non-Newtonian pants could paradoxically behave like formal wear and casual wear at the same time. Onion writers were apparently spoofing the breathless articles about quantum computing that have filled the popular science press for a decade.

A common mistake—see for instance the February 15, 2007, issue of the Economist—is to claim that, in principle, quantum computers could rapidly solve a particularly difficult set of mathematical challenges called NP-complete problems, which even the best existing computers cannot solve quickly (so far as anyone knows). Quantum computers would supposedly achieve this feat not by being formal and casual at the same time but by having hardware capable of processing every possible answer simultaneously.

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