January 27, 2010 — Classical physics provided the world with a fundamental understanding of the predictable nature of the universe. Think of Earth rotating around the sun, or the iconic illustration of an apple landing on Isaac Newton's head.
Over the years, this big-picture approach gave way to scientists exploring the smallest details of the world and observing the particle and wave duality of atoms, and subatomic particles and waves.
While researchers' full understanding of these quantum concepts is still maturing, the science has guided the creation of lasers that power everything from DVD players to magnetic resonance imagining machines.
Researchers in quantum mechanics are now working to understand and harness the power of how molecules behave at the nanoscale – or one-billionth of a meter. These researchers are developing the scientific understanding necessary for creating quantum computers capable of processing and communicating information in exponentially more powerful ways than currently achievable.
Researchers envision using such technology in the future for computer-human interfaces that will allow users to pull information from the Internet by thinking of the search terms and then selecting from a display that appears in their field of vision.
In a new documentary, "Quantum Tamers: Revealing our Weird and Wired Future," Stuart Wolf, director of the University of Virginia's Institute for Nanoscale and Quantum Scientific and Technological Advanced Research, or "nanoSTAR," talks about the promise of these quantum technologies. He appears in the film along with other internationally renowned scientists, including Stephen Hawking.
Wolf is featured in several segments throughout the film, most prominently in a section about the implication of quantum computing for cyber-security.
Wolf's experience in quantum mechanics includes working for more than 12 years with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he directed funding of more than $200 million for quantum computing research projects. While serving as program manager at DARPA, he coined the term "spintronics" for the expanding field of nanoelectronics that relies on the spin of electrons as opposed to their charge for data storage and processing.
As director of nanoSTAR, Wolf is facilitating research projects that range from nanoelectronics to biology and medicine, and engaging researchers from U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Medicine, Curry School of Education, Darden School of BusinessCollege and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
An important goal for quantum technologies that is addressed in the film and also is a priority at Wolf's nanoSTAR Institute is ensuring that computers will be able to avoid an approaching roadblock to Moore's Law, which states that computers will double processing speeds about every two years. By creating transistors that use spintronics, as opposed to today's transistors that switch between binary bits labeled "1" or "0" based on electrical charges, computers could work at ever-faster speeds without overheating or becoming unduly bulky and expensive.
"Technologies are already approaching the boundaries of quantum information and transistors are approaching the size of a quantum bit, or a 'qubit,'" Wolf says in the film. "Over the course of the next 20 years, we expect transistors, which are the heart of computing devices, to approach the size of a single atom."
To preface Wolf's comments on the implications of quantum computing for cyber-security, the film explains how Peter Shor, a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, generated an explosion of interest in quantum computing by describing how a hypothetical quantum computer could be used to factor large numbers. This factoring is a key to encrypting and decoding everything from eBay transactions to top-secret government reports.
With today's computers, factoring a 400-digit number – or finding the two 200-digit numbers that are multiplied to make it – is nearly impossible. Quantum computers, however, not only would be able to solve 400-digit factoring problems, but also could be used to create more robust quantum codes.
"Governments take the development of a quantum computer very seriously," Wolf says in the film. "As a threat, a quantum computer can break many of the encryption codes that are in use today, including those used in satellites and banks and credit cards for secure communications."
While wearable quantum computers that allow users to search the Internet with their mind may now seem a futuristic dream, the film's contributors point out that air travel was once considered just a fantasy. With a community of scientists and engineers working toward the common goal of harnessing the power of atoms, the promise of ever-faster and more-powerful computers may be realized sooner than we know.
"Quantum Tamers," produced by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, and Title Entertainment, is being distributed internationally to television networks and specialty channels. Filmmakers are currently working on distribution in the United States.