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A Corner of My Mind: — Quantum Computers: The Surreal to the Real

A conversation between HAL 9000, the paranoid computer that runs the spaceship in Arthur C. Clark’s classic: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Dave, who’s outside the ship and was once HAL’s good buddy.

Dave: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?

HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Dave: What’s the problem?

HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

Dave: I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.

HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

Dave: Where the hell’d you get that idea?

HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.

Dave: All right, HAL. I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.

HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult.

Dave: HAL, I won’t argue with you any more! Open the doors!

HAL: (almost sadly) Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye.

Back in their infancy, when computers took up whole rooms and we humans were paranoid about them taking over our lives, and maybe even the world, a few visionary scientists were already gazing into the distant future and considering computer technology that would’ve blown HAL’s circuits. They call it quantum computers.

In the interim between those early years and now, while we’ve made friends with computers and they no longer lock us out of spaceships or our homes, they have become an indispensable part of government, business, education, and for many, our personal lives.

Physicist Paul Benioff is credited with first applying quantum theory to computers in 1981.

In the early days, it would have been difficult to foresee, “the large amounts of data generated by scientific research, the proliferation of personal computers or the emergence of the Internet, which have only fueled our need for more, more and more computing power.”

While today’s computers work on a 0 or a 1, the quantum version can be both a 0 and a 1 and all points in between at the same time. This is a general explanation, and all that I’m capable of, but the bottom line is that quantum computers will have the capacity to be millions of times more powerful than our current supercomputers. Scientists foresee quantum computers that can work on a million computations at once! There is one problem though, it’s called entanglement, and it has to do with the nature of atoms and molecules. It seems that if you look an atom in the eye, it gets flustered and goes awry. The guys at the Los Alamos National lab, at Silicon Valley, and other think tanks are working on that one, too.

Some computer scientists are hoping that by the year 2020 or possibly 2030, “the circuits on a quantum computer’s microprocessor, measured on the atomic scale of atoms and molecules, will perform memory and processing tasks significantly faster than any current silicon-based computer.”

What does all this ultra-high tech research mean to you and me?

I have no idea, but as with many scientific breakthroughs, I imagine it can be used for good or evil. Such is the nature of the human race.

If all this isn’t surreal enough, now the brains-that-be are talking about a DNA computer. Scientist Leonard Adelman used DNA sequences to solve a problem.

“The main benefit of using DNA computers to solve complex problems is that different possible solutions are created all at once! What it boils down to is that more than ten trillion molecules can fit into an area no larger than one cubic centimeter, allowing the computer to perform ten trillion calculations at a time.”

Sir Arthur C. Clark passed away in 2008. We who write science fiction knew him as one of the founding fathers of the modern genre, along with Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. Perhaps another science fiction writer will continue Clark’s theme of “2001” with a novel about Computer Guy; a character who walks around with a DNA computer tucked into his brain and can instantly solve a million problems at once. Call it “The Man Who Would Be God.”

Wonder if he could help me straighten out my damn checkbook!

“T-That’s all, folks.”

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