Friday, September 12, 2008

Since we're on the topic of Quantum Mechanics...

This thread of Science seems to be a cornerstone of conversations this week...

Here's an article about The University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing. Cool idea about Quantum Cryptography that I never thought of before!! Very cool.

Inside the invisible quantum universe
Written by Greg Mercer, Record Staff
Reprinted from The Record, August 13, 2008

On a cluttered whiteboard inside a laboratory at the edge of campus, quantum physicists are dealing with riddles big and small.

"Garbage day is Monday," reads one message, a reminder that the sharp minds inside the Institute for Quantum Computing are people, too.

They could be forgiven for forgetting such a mundane details when you consider the countless hours spent bent over complex arrangements of lenses, mirrors and pinholes, trying to break laser beams into their component parts.

The University of Waterloo physicists believe the secrets of those subatomic particles within the beams represent the future of computing — machines that are exponentially faster and smaller than traditional computers.

These men and women work in the strange realm of quantum mechanics — a world of algorithms and photons where you can be in multiple places at once.

It's an invisible universe governed by laws that seem counterintuitive.

"When you look at your car, it doesn't move because you're looking at it," explains Raymond Laflamme, the institute's director. "But if you were quantum, and it was quantum, you would not be able to observe it."

The researchers at the institute are trying to figure out ways to manipulate nature's strange behaviour at the atomic and subatomic level, and use that for new technology.

"It's like learning to drive a car. We are just learning to control it," he said. "Being in two places at once, we don't feel comfortable, yet."

Practical quantum computers are still years away. But their basic principle, which turns classical computing on its head, holds infinite promise.

A traditional computer, like the one on your desk, uses strings of 1s and 0s as the building blocks for information.

Because a quantum computer uses atoms that can be pushed into different states, those tiny bits of information can be both 1s and 0s at the same time.

That means a quantum computer has the capacity to solve mathematical problems that are virtually impossible using an ordinary computer.

Since its creation in 2002, researchers at the institute have studied this new frontier in computing. They spend long hours in rooms marked by sticky mats to remove shoe dust and green lamps that minimize interference with their light-sensitive projects.

It's painstakingly detailed work -- an experiment can take six months. Christophe Couteau, an assistant research professor at the quantum institute, said he spent his entire PhD program trying to isolate a single photon. And it's taken 10 years to develop the small quantum computer prototypes that the institute is exploring now.

Although quantum computing may still seem more Star Trek than reality, there is one commercial application already in use. Quantum cryptography, which uses the principles of quantum mechanics, can send ultra-secure messages that are impossible to intercept. It holds promise for military and financial institutions, although the equipment could cost $160,000.

At the quantum institute, they're using the technology to beam secret messages using an infrared light. The key to quantum cryptography is that anyone who tries to intercept the message alters the message, like leaving a suspicious fingerprint.

Researcher Chris Erven said the technology could eventually be used to protect online shoppers or the privacy of medical records.

"It's the Atari of quantum cryptography," he said, referring to the precursor to the modern video game console first popular in the 1970s. "Hopefully, eventually, we'll have the Xbox 360 version."

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