by I. Peterson
One way to get a job done faster is to divvy it up into small chores that different people can do simultaneously. The same strategy can be applied to solving certain computational problems by breaking them up into components that are distributed among many computers working in parallel.
In principle, a quantum computer (SN: 1/14/95, p. 30) offers an alternative approach to speeding up lengthy calculations (SN: 5/14/94, p. 308). Now, Lov K. Grover of Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., has found a way in which quantum computers can also be made to work in parallel, considerably speeding up a quantum computation.
The significance of Grover's work on what he calls "quantum telecomputation" is that it pioneers the study of an important question, says theoretical physicist John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "How can the task of performing a quantum computation best be distributed among many processors?"
The finding follows up on Grover's remarkable discovery last year that, in theory, a quantum computer can search an unsorted database to locate a specific entry more efficiently than a conventional computer can (SN: 8/31/96, p. 143).
Grover's initial interest was in exploiting quantum mechanical effects to develop an efficient procedure, or algorithm, for solving an important type of problem in computer science. The task is to estimate the mean value of a large set of numbers in such a way that the estimated value has a high probability of being within a specified range of the true mean. The closer the estimated value must lie to the true mean, the more numbers must be randomly selected from the entire group to calculate that value and the longer the computation takes.
In Grover's scheme, each number is represented as a quantum mechanical particle (such as an electron), and its value is encoded as the particle's phase. The phase is a wavelike property intrinsic to the particle that allows interference between particles in the same way that wave crests and troughs nullify each other when ripples meet.
By manipulating the phases of all these particles in the same manner, it's possible to obtain an estimate of the mean, derived from the quantum state of the entire ensemble, in fewer steps than a conventional computer would take to do the same calculation.
The computation can be speeded up if the operations are shared among a number of processors. In conventional computing, each processor would simply calculate the exact mean of a certain fraction of the numbers and transmit the resulting value to a central processor, which would then assemble the data and calculate the overall mean.
In Grover's quantum mechanical algorithm, however, each processor computes the approximate mean of the whole group to a certain precision. Consequently, there's no simple way of partitioning the calculation among several quantum processors.
Grover's alternative approach takes advantage of a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement. The idea is to set up a large system that exists in two quantum states at the same time. The act of observation then determines which state is manifest at any given moment.
Scientists have created such entangled states in an electron orbiting an atom (SN: 8/26/95, p. 133) and in a single atom (SN: 5/25/96, p. 325). In both cases, the particle appears to be in two well-separated positions at the same time.
Grover proposes the possibility of representing numbers as entangled particles, each of which is a combination of two states. The particles can then be physically separated among individual quantum processors that independently compute the mean of the ensemble to a certain precision. Because the parallel processors are already linked through quantum entanglement of the particles, only a minimal amount of data finally needs to be transmitted to a single processor to obtain the final result.
"By exploiting their shared entanglement, the processors can get the job done faster than one processor acting alone," Preskill says.
The prospects of achieving practical quantum telecomputation any time soon appear dim, however. "This is a tremendously difficult thing to do [in the lab], but as far as we know, the laws of physics don't make it impossible -- only somewhat improbable," says Norman Margolus of Boston University. "By investigating the theoretical limits of quantum computation without worrying about the practicality, Grover and others are helping to stimulate continued interest in the field."
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Lov K. Grover
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