Is there a compelling reason why we should care about quantum computation? It may sound like an extravagant way to compute something that can be computed anyway. Indeed, your standard laptop, given enough time and memory, can simulate pretty much any physical process. In principle, it can also simulate any quantum interference and compute everything that quantum computers can compute. The snag is that this simulation is, in general, very inefficient. And efficiency does matter, especially if you have to wait more than the age of the Universe for your laptop to stop and deliver an answer!31
In order to solve a particular problem, computers (classical or quantum) follow a precise set of instructions called an algorithm.
Computer scientists quantify the efficiency of an algorithm according to how rapidly its running time, or the use of memory, increases when it is given ever larger inputs to work on.
An algorithm is said to be efficient if the number of elementary operations taken to execute it increases no faster than a polynomial function of the size of the input.32
We take the input size to be the total number of binary digits (bits) needed to specify the input.
For example, using the algorithm taught in elementary school, one can multiply two
The class of problems that can be solved in polynomial time by a deterministic computer is represented by the capital letter
It is clear that
Finally, the class of problems that can be solved in polynomial time by a quantum computer is called
A quantum algorithm, discovered by Peter Shor in 1994, can factor
The age of the Universe is currently estimated at 13.772 billion years.↩︎
Note that technological progress alone, such as increasing the speed of classical computers, will never turn an inefficient (exponential scaling) algorithm into an efficient (polynomial scaling) algorithm. Why?↩︎
It must be stressed that not all quantum algorithms are so efficient. In fact many are no faster than their classical counterparts. Which particular problems will lend themselves to quantum speed-ups is an open question.↩︎