From the privatization of space travel (Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Mars One — though I kind of want to leave the latter out of this because #builttofail) to self-driving cars, it’s safe to say we’re on the precipice of a world envisioned by the likes of science fiction writers and Back to the Future Part II (for real though, is a superconductive hoverboard too much to ask for?). We even live in a world where the Weinstein Brothers — peddlers of Oscar-bait films — are totally into romanticizing the life and times of Stephen Hawking. Science is sexy? Yes, it is.
But let’s table both hard and popular science for a second. Science is, at heart, a vast field of ideation and experimentation. It’s an enterprising endeavor not only in discovering the natural world, but also in creating ways of interfacing with it and even manipulating it. In answering questions spanning everything from geological to subatomic curiosities, the imaginative process of science also gives rise to countless other questions. Whether you are unaware of it, or just plain loathe it, we live in a world that is a product of this fundamentally creative process.
Moore’s law is the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.1
Moore’s Law, which began as a prediction, but is now used as a guide, begs the question: Will we eventually run out of new ways to do advanced things, like shrinking your iPhone further, all while making it run better, faster, and stronger than ever? One could argue this exponential growth is untenable: making futuristic leaps and bounds requires processing power to evolve just as dramatically. But how exactly do we slip the surly bonds of silicone chips?
Are You Still Here?
I used to work for a major research university, whose chilled hallows housed one of the world’s only D-Wave quantum computers. From the outside, the beastly D-Wave appears to be a sleek, black box recalling the design and gravitas of the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith. Inside it, however, is a chip on ‘roids, powered by quantum “qubits” bouncing off the walls like it’s the rager of all time. And that’s pretty much it, or so it would seem:
Computers speak in a language of 0s and 1s (cue the binary solo!), and sure, D-Wave knows that, too. But it also speaks in 100s, 10,000s, 1,000,000,000s, etc — simultaneously. G’luck with that, coders! Yet, despite the ability to build such an amazing machine, we still don’t quite understand how to harness its power for applications in computing. Its processing power is said to be incredibly fast; it’s also criticized for being slow as molasses. Some even argue that building a fully functioning quantum computer is an exercise in failure. I, for one, would love to see this going in the direction of pizza materializing out of thin air, but it sounds like governments are more interested in “serious” applications, like cryptology (fine, whatever).
What’s in the Box?
Schrӧdinger’s cat is the theory that a hypothetical cat in a radioactively toxic box — no real cats were harmed in the making of this thought experiment — is both dead and alive when the lid’s on, yet only either dead or alive with the lid off. (Those damned curious cats get into everything …) However harebrained, this perfectly illustrates a quantum mechanics concept that multiple states exist at once, even though we can’t physically see or experience them outside of one state. This is the core concept of superposition, which essentially drives the processing power of quantum computers. We’re dealing with something here that both is and isn’t. Cool, but also, WTF?
If you didn’t know it before, now you know there are several mystery boxes in research nascence and they may or may not contribute to — or be — the Future (capital “F”) of computing. Is it a quantum flash in the pan? No one knows. But there certainly are a lot of super-brains looking into making a functional quantum computer a reality, including the wizards of Google.
Whether or not the D-Wave or other quantum computers work out definitively, it’s incredible that this technology is rooted in an ever-evolving theory, which itself involves more philosophy, curiosity and wonder than one would think. It’s pretty far out, as far as computing is concerned. If this doesn’t exemplify the sheer power of ideas, imagination and creativity, then — I don’t know — come back to me in a few centuries (yes, I really want to live forever), when I’m sure we’ll have something better to talk about. #hardtoplease #toughcrowd
So, the next time you fanboy/fangirl about the industrial design, UI or UX of your fancy schmancy smartphone-of-the-moment, take the time to quietly appreciate, if not admire, the serious-business-cat science that makes it possible for you to casually slip a tiny, sophisticated computer into your pocket. Think about that the next time you accidentally drop it into the toilet. #splash #makingwaves
- “Transistor Count and Moore’s Law – 2011” by Wgsimon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Transistor_Count_and_Moore%27s_Law_-_2011.svg#/media/File:Transistor_Count_and_Moore%27s_Law_-_2011.svg