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Brum boffins pave way for quantum computer.

Byline: By Shahid Naqvi

Nearly 30 years ago the super computer Deep Thought captured the imagination of fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy.

Douglas Adams's creation provided the answer to the meaning of life (42), and was a god-like presence in a futuristic vision that seemed beyond the scope of reality.

But now scientists at the University of Birmingham have revealed they are conducting research that could pave the way for a 'quantum computer' capable of outperforming even today's most sophisticated machines.

A team of researchers has received pounds 6 million funding to embark on an ambitious project to manipulate atoms by chilling them to just above absolute zero - the coldest temperature in the universe.

The Ultracold Atom Research Centre will combine the best brains in Birmingham with a team from the University of Nottingham. Their work involves technological advances that could make a super computer like Deep Thought a reality, operating at dramatically faster speeds than anything in operation.

If they succeed, it is hoped the quantum computer will provide more concrete answers to life's big questions than Deep Thought. The drive involves using powerful lasers and magnetic fields to cool gas atoms to a fraction above minus 273.15 deg C - colder even than deep space.

Observing the radically altered behaviour of the atoms at this temperature could lead to a breakthrough in the development of a quantum computer.

Professor Mike Gunn, from Birmingham University's school of physics and astronomy, said: "The tricks used are quite spectacular. This is because when you usually take matter and cool it down it turns into a solid or liquid like, for example, water which solidifies on the windscreen.

"We are frustrating the desire for the atoms to be a solid or liquid by building a fridge which is not a material object. It uses only light and magnetic fields.

"What we are doing here is cooling atoms down from the normal temperature in gas to something which is so cold that they all march in step a bit like light in a laser beam." Keeping the chilled gas atoms from sticking to surfaces means scientists can capitalise on and manipulate the strange properties they exhibit.

"If you are looking at applications, these gases when they are cold are very fragile," said Prof Gunn.

"That fragility can also make them useful. You can use them to detect very small forces and very small accelerations.

"You may, for example, be able to use these packets of gas to measure very small changes in the gravitational field that can aid you if you are looking for things.

"The US military are using it to detect tunnels. We may be able to use the atoms for so-called quantum information processing to build the quantum computers people have talked about."

Science so far

500 BC - the abacus is invented

1671 - German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, co-inventor of calculus, designed the "Stepped Reckoner" machine to carry out multiplication

1822 - Charles Babbage designed his first mechanical computer

1935 - the IBM 601 invented - a punch card machine capable of doing a multiplication in one second

1951 - the first commercially successful electronic computer, UNIVAC I, based on valves and wire circuits is created

1964 - launch of IBM 360 - the first series of compatible computers

1970 - RAM chip introduced

1974 - release of first personal computer, MITS Altair 8800

1975 - computer language BASIC introduced by Bill Gates and Paul Allen leading to the formation of Microsoft later in the year

1978 - Space Invaders starts a video game craze

1982 - home computers the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 released

1985 - Microsoft Windows launched

1988 - first optical chip developed using light instead of electricity to increase processing speed

1989 - World Wide Web invented by Tim Berners-Lee

1997 - IBM's Deep Blue becomes the first computer to beat a reigning World Chess Champion


How it all began Back in 1962, the ultimate version of a Midland super computer was this Computech system - then worth around pounds 100,000 - shown here on the screen of a 21st century Apple iMac
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 4, 2007
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