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Quantum Computing: bigger than the NHS IT project?

Picture of a surgeon and diagnostic images.The £6bn NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) is the biggest computer project ever, if some healthcare pundits are to be believed. I have news for them. Mine may be bigger.

An article in 25 March 2006's New Scientist describes how quantum mechanics may be harnessed to create computers millions of times faster than today’s supercomputers.

Conventional computers use on and off states to represent 1 or 0, physically manifested as a difference in voltage or electrical charge. Quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits. Qubits can exist in a state of 0 or 1 at the same time. Only when someone tries to measure its state will a qubit settle on one of the values. This means that you get roughly two calculations for the price of one.

But that’s not enough for the weird quantum mechanical world. Quantum computing also uses entanglement. When qubits are entangled, they become linked, which means one is in a state of 0 when the other is 1. Or both can have the same value.

Using such quantum cavorting, a computer could calculate with many numbers simultaneously. With only a few hundred entangled qubits it may be possible to represent more atoms than there are in the universe. Now that really is big.

Quantum Computers may help healthcare to:


  • Sort huge numbers of data;

  • Calculate statistics for large populations; or

  • Recognise complex patterns and images.

Researchers say a practical quantum computer may be less than 10 years away. Since NPfIT completes in 2010, a combination of that, wirelessness and the convergence of clinical and information technology could leave the systems it deploys about as up-to-date as a slide rule is today. Maybe size really isn’t everything.

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