The newest Pentium chip powering PCs and laptops contains 40 million electronic switches packed onto a piece of silicon about the size of a thumbnail. Several years from now, if this incredible shrinking continues, a single chip will hold a billion switches, then a trillion. The logical culmination is a computer in which the switches are so tiny that each consists of an individual atom. At that point something miraculous happens: quantum mechanics kick in.
Anyone who follows the science news or watches 'Star Trek' has at least a notion of what that means: particles can be in two or more places at once. Atoms obey a peculiar logic of their own - and if it can be harnessed society will be transformed. Problems that would now take forever would be solved almost instantly. Quantum computing promises nothing less than a shortcut through time.
George Johnson is a science writer for the New York Times. He is a former Alicia Patterson Fellow, a finalist for the prestigious Aventis Prize, and a recipient of the Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.