Ego-surfing by proxy (TBTF in NW)

Rohit Khare (
Wed, 09 Jul 1997 21:52:57 -0400

Lo and behold, the back page of Network World has our own Keith Dawson this week...

Coffee: Driving the computer industry now or in the future? 
 By Mark Gibbs

     Coffee. What IT shop can operate without it? You know, that wonderful, 
aromatic brew in the staff lounge at  9 a.m. that turns into a viscous, 
stomach-burning, gut-wrenching, black ooze by 4 p.m. But in IT, we just 
can't live without it, whatever state it's in.
     Now it was with some amusement that I read that a nice, hot cup of 
coffee may one day be pressed into service as a supercomputer. I came 
across this gem on the site Tasty Bits from the Technology Front 
     The background to this improbable idea lies in quantum physics and the 
limitations of conventional computers. With chips, speed depends on how 
much you can minimize the size of various chip features. Of course, the 
limit comes when you get features so small you're effectively handling 
single electrons.
     Interestingly, the smaller the feature size, the more expensive the 
fabrication process. This, in turn, makes the fabrication ('fab' plant) 
correspondingly more expensive. Supposedly, if we could build chips that 
handle single electrons, the cost of the fab plant would equal the gross 
national product of every country on the planet.
     A hope lies in quantum physics. But quantum physics only applies to 
the subatomic level, which is where the quantum properties of matter become 
detectable. And this is where something called 'quantum logic' comes in: 
A particle (an electron, a photon, an atomic nucleus, etc.) can be in 
multiple states simultaneously. It can, in effect, represent 0 and 1 at the 
same time.
     Now you're probably about to frame a deep-penetrating question such as 
'Wha'?' and I'm right there with you. This is desperately weird stuff, 
and I'm not about to make the slightest attempt to explain it. That's not 
because I'm short of space or anything - I don't understand it, either.
     But the potential is this: Where a regular computer working with, say, 
a 24-bit word could, at any moment, represent any of 8,388,608 values, a 
quantum computer with 24 quantum bits (or, as they snappily call them, 
qubits) could represent all 8,388,608 values at the same time  because each 
qubit can be in multiple states.
     If the term that springs to mind at this point is 'massively 
parallel,' you are quite right. That is, indeed, what this beast is. Or, 
at least, will be if they can build it.
     With such a machine, cracking real encryption codes - typically a 
problem of finding the prime factors of large numbers - becomes practical. 
In 1994, 1,600 computers on the Internet took eight months to find the 
prime factors of a 129-digit number. If they were to try the same thing 
with a 250-digit number, it would take about 800,000 years.
     On the other hand, a 30-qubit computer would be capable of knocking 
off the prime factors of a thousand -digit number in a mere 20 minutes! 
That's real horsepower by anyone's standard.
     It turns out that using individual particles as qubits is tricky. As 
soon as you try to determine the state of the particle, your observation 
stops the process of computation (good ol' Heisenberg's uncertainty 
principle at work). 
     So some bright chaps at MIT (http:// 
projects/ spins/home.html) have come up with the idea of using lots of 
particles at the same time, all doing the same thing. They reason that if 
all the particles are doing the same calculation, determining the state of 
a small number of them still leaves the rest to complete the process.
     They suggest that a nice, hot cup of coffee would be a fine collection 
of particles to use as qubits.  Actually, in a real machine, they would use 
a complex, purified molecule such as caffeine. Using a technique called 
nuclear magnetic resonance - which is just a matter of shoving radio waves 
into the liquid to induce the computing 'states' and detect the magnetic 
response of the atoms - a quantum computer may one day be built. And the 
hardware required is cheap.
     So in the future, we may be able to honestly say that the computer 
industry does, indeed, run on caffeine.
     How many MIPs to the sip? Let me know at or (800) 
622-1108, Ext. 504.

--- Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) /// Voice+Pager: (617) 960-5131 VNet: 370-5131 Fax: (617) 960-1009