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If an atomic-scale computer can be built, it won’t just create a faster machine: it will help us think like the universe

What is a computer? Steve Jobs famously described the computer as “a bicycle for the mind”?—?a tool to help us remember, think, discover, and create. Computers are high-tech, universal tools; they’re so useful, in fact, that some of us spend all day in contact with some sort of digital device.

There’s another way, though, to think about what a computer is: not as a high-tech tool, but as a profound intellectual achievement. In a deep sense, the power of the computer is as much about ideas as it is about circuits. The incredible, open-ended flexibility that makes computers so powerful?—?and that lets us use them to figure out everything from climate modeling to “Jeopardy!”?—?is, in fact, the product of more than two thousand years of painstaking, hard-won intellectual progress in low-tech fields like mathematics, logic, and philosophy. Like the tide line on a beach, the computer marks the furthest we’ve progressed in a philosophical quest to understand, perfect, and extend the reach of reason.

The creation of the modern computer in the 1940s was a watershed moment in that quest; today’s super-fast computers are still essentially built on that achievement. Now, however, we’re poised to take another leap forward. That leap is the quantum computer?—?a computer built on an atomic scale. Though they’re still mostly theoretical, quantum computers would use individual atoms to do their computations, instead of circuits etched in silicon. Such a computer wouldn’t just be built differently?—?it would also think differently, using the uncertainty of particle physics instead of the rigid on/off circuitry of a modern computer.

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