Winfried Hensinger likes Star Trek. “It goes all the way back to primary school,” said the director of the Sussex Centre for Quantum Technologies in England. “I wanted to be science officer on the Enterprise, so I worked out in about grade five that I wanted to study physics.”

Today, his day-to-day work on abstract notions of quantum mechanics would make even Spock’s ears perk up.

“[Quantum computing] has a huge appeal for young people,” Hensinger told Digital Trends, “because it’s basically science fiction.” When he started in the field, it was largely confined to theoretical study. Today, the most promising projects are within reach of producing a universal quantum computer — something that was as sci-fi as Star Trek just a few years ago.

“Before there were computers, I had to learn typing on a typewriter,” Hensinger said with a laugh. “Life really changed when computers became available. And quantum computing could be a similar revolution.” When that revolution comes, it will be the result of several decades of work from committed scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. But what IS it, exactly? Ah, there’s the story.

Time Magazine described quantum computing beautifully in a 2014 cover story called “The Infinity Machine”: “It promises to solve some of humanity’s most complex problems. It’s backed by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, NASA, and the CIA. Each one costs $10,000,000 and operates at 459 degrees below zero. And nobody knows how it actually works.”

As the quantum computer makes the jump from theory to reality, the field surrounding it is poised to explode. We’ll see applications that were never even considered before, from science lab fare that’s only comprehensible to experts, to weird and wonderful ways of using the tech that should capture anyone’s imagination.

And it’s all thanks to a very famous cat.

A Quantum of Science

Think about this: The device you’re using to read this article works with information stored as binary digits, or bits, each of which can occupy a discrete value of 1 or 0. A standard character from the Latin alphabet is made up of eight bits, otherwise known as a byte. The eight bits in a byte, each a 0 or a 1, can together refer to any alphanumeric symbol. Everything a computer processes, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a string of bits.

But a quantum computer works with information that’s stored in quantum bits, or qubits. A qubit can occupy a value of 1, 0, or any quantum superposition of the two states. That makes things a little more complicated.

Quantum superposition is an example of the “quantum weirdness” that scientists have grappled with for decades. Put simply, it means a quantum object can occupy more than one state until it’s measured, as referred to in the famous thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat.

Instead of using transistors to keep track of binary data values, a quantum computer uses quantum objects. As a result, the computational power of a quantum computer easily eclipses that of a classical computer. Any given set of quantum values can represent far more data than traditional binary data, because it doesn’t have to reduce data to a string of 0s and 1s.

In theory, at least. Though researchers have been able to agree on how a quantum computer might function, building working hardware has proven an incredible challenge, and has led to plenty of disagreement.

Right now, we’re at a stage where researchers are able to construct a system that has access to a handful of qubits. These computers are great for testing out things like hardware configurations and even running algorithms, but as Time pointed out, they’re ungodly expensive and only the most basic version of what researchers envision. The true potential of a quantum system will only be realized once hundreds, or thousands, of qubits can coexist together.

We’re now seeing a race toward the first large-scale universal quantum computer. There are two strong but different contenders, and it’s not clear which idea will become reality first.

Theory into Practice

“It used to be a physics problem. Now, it’s an engineering problem,” said Hensinger, when asked about the changing face of quantum computing. Though there’s a clear theoretical understanding of how a quantum computer should work, that doesn’t make constructing one an easy process.

The difficulties are multifaceted, and researchers have yet to agree on what the foundation of quantum computing should look like. However, two possibilities stand head and shoulders above the rest.

One is called “superconducting qubits.” It uses an implementation that relies on supercooled electric circuits, and could offer manufacturing advantages when chips are being made in greater quantities.

Read more: http://www.digitaltrends.com/features/dt10-quantum-computing-will-make-your-pc-look-like-a-graphing-calculator/