There is a temptation to lump quantum computing in with technologies such as fusion power in the sense that both have been proposed for decades with the promise of tremendous leaps in performance.
Whilst fusion power continues to frustrate, there are signs of real progress being made in quantum computing. There is barely a tech giant in the world that doesn't have dedicated teams working on the topic, and these teams are beginning to bring quantum computing out of the lab and into the real world.
At the forefront of this is IBM, who recently announced that they would connect up a quantum computer to the web and allow us to play with it. The project involves a 5 qubit machine, with a qubit allowing it to operate in both '0 and 1' states at the same time, thus increasing its potential computational power enormously. A one qubit machine has roughly 16 possible states, but once you get over 300, you begin to exceed the number of atoms in the universe.
Whilst there is a lot of incredibly technical stuff going on in the background, users will be presented with a collection of symbols that represent each quantum operation. Users can drag these into place, and the computer then executes the command.
Big and small
Suffice to say, IBM's project is not ready, nor even intended for commercial release just yet, but they are one of many teams working on doing just that. To show it's not just the big boys that are beavering away at the problem, a bunch of academics gathered at Nature's London office last week to show off their work.
The event, which was hosted by the accelerator program Entrepreneur First, brought together academics from as far afield as Australia. The day saw projects ranging from the development of quantum machines to aid machine learning to an attempts to network up quantum machines discussed and quizzed by a panel of experts from across industry, academia and government.
It's probably fair to say that quantum computing still has a long way to go before it reaches the mainstream, not least because of the extremely sensitive conditions required to host the computer at the moment. Such is the delicate nature of the process, the computer has to be housed in incredibly cold environments that protect it from intrusion and interference from outside sources. Even a minute change in temperature can mess with its ability to function.
Such conditions are likely to prevent quantum computing from hitting our desktops or smartphones any time soon, but it shouldn't preclude the use of quantum computing in data centers, where they will gain particular power should Amir Feizpour and Krzysztof Kaczmarek manage to network up the devices successfully and robustly.
So, whilst these constraints and challenges still render the technology a little way from fruition, there are at least strong signs that progress is being made towards a time when quantum computing is no longer the stuff of science fiction.