A quantum computer is a device modeled after the principles of quantum mechanics. It is characterized by unprecedented processing power, which can solve complex problems in a matter of seconds, rather than thousands of years.

Regular computers (your desktop or laptop at home or in the office) encode information in binary digits or bits represented by the numbers “0” and “1.” Your computer has to manipulate billions of these bits based on a given set of instructions to produce a single word or image. The computer repeats this process over and over at a rapid pace until it completes the output. 

A quantum computer is a standard computer on steroids. It processes information using a different unit of data called a “quantum bit” or a “qubit.” A qubit runs exponentially faster than a bit, allowing a quantum computer to solve a problem much more rapidly than a normal one does. 

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Quantum computers exploit the principles of superposition and entanglement. Here’s how they work. 

What is Superposition?

Whereas personal computers attempt to solve problems in a linear fashion by going through individual 0s and 1s, quantum computers explore all possible outcomes at the same time. They do so through a quantum phenomenon called “superposition,” where qubits take on both states of 0 and 1, and everything in-between, simultaneously. As a result, a quantum computer can perform multiple calculations at once.

What is Entanglement?

Quantum computers also harness “entanglement,” which theorizes that entangled particles have interdependent quantum states. Entanglement occurs when a quantum particle interacts with another, say, by bumping into another to form a pair. At a later point in time, when this pair of particles disengage, each particle will still be pretty much interconnected in some way. For example, when one particle is measured or observed, it affects the other particle, even when a great distance separates them.

Experts say that entanglement in quantum computing can impact the design of algorithms so they can solve complex tasks. Entanglement allows the correlation of qubits, which means that users only need to modify a single qubit to implement changes to all qubits in a system with no additional effort. Entanglement could also make lags, which usually happen with binary computers when you run too many programs, a thing of the past.

Do Real Commercial Quantum Computers Exist?

Currently, several working prototypes can perform a few tasks that a quantum computer can do. One company that is leading the space is D-Wave Systems, Inc., which designed a commercial device that can accomplish some form of quantum computation. Microsoft, Google, and some universities across the globe are also engaged in quantum research. However, it may take years or even decades for scientists to come up with a fully-functional quantum computer.