The minimal effort explanation of quantum computing

Quantum computing is really complicated, right? Far more complicated than conventional computing, surely. But, wait. Do I even understand how my laptop works? Probably not. I don’t even understand how a doorknob works. I mean, I can use a doorknob. But don’t ask me to design one, or even draw a picture of the inner mechanism.

We have this illusion (it has the technical name in the illusion of explanatory depth) that we understand things we know how to use. We don’t. Think about it. Do you know how a toilet works? A freezer? A goddamn doorknob? If you think you do, try to explain it. Try to explain how you would build it. Use pictures if you like. Change your mind about understanding it yet?

We don’t use quantum computers so we don’t have the illusion we understand how they work. This has two side effects: (1) we think conventional computing is generally well-understood or needs no explanation, and (2) we accept the idea that quantum computing is hard to explain. This, in turn, causes us to try way too hard at explaining it.

Perhaps by now you are thinking maybe I don’t know how my own computer works. Don’t worry, I googled it for you. This was the first hit.

Imagine if a computer were a person. Suppose you have a friend who’s really good at math. She is so good that everyone she knows posts their math problems to her. Each morning, she goes to her letterbox and finds a pile of new math problems waiting for her attention. She piles them up on her desk until she gets around to looking at them. Each afternoon, she takes a letter off the top of the pile, studies the problem, works out the solution, and scribbles the answer on the back. She puts this in an envelope addressed to the person who sent her the original problem and sticks it in her out tray, ready to post. Then she moves to the next letter in the pile. You can see that your friend is working just like a computer. Her letterbox is her input; the pile on her desk is her memory; her brain is the processor that works out the solutions to the problems; and the out tray on her desk is her output.

That’s all. That’s the basic first layer understanding of how this device you use everyday works. Now google “how does a quantum computer work” and you are met right out of the gate with an explanation of theoretical computer science, Moore’s law, the physical limits of simulation, and so on. And we haven’t even gotten to the quantum part yet. There we find qubits and parallel universes, spooky action at a distance, exponential growth, and, wow, holy shit, no wonder people are confused.

What is going on here? Why do we try so hard to explain every detail of quantum physics as if it is the only path to understanding quantum computation? I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe we should ask a sociologist. But let me try something else. Let’s answer the question how does a quantum computer work at the same level as the answer above to how does a computer work. Here we go.

How does a quantum computer work?

Imagine if a quantum computer were a person. Suppose you have a friend who’s really good at developing film. She is so good that everyone she knows posts their undeveloped photos to her. Each morning, she goes to her letterbox and finds a pile of new film waiting for her attention. She piles them up on her desk until she gets around to looking at them. Each afternoon, she takes a photo off the top of the pile, enters a dark room where she works at her perfected craft of film development. She returns with the developed photo and puts this in an envelope addressed to the person who sent her the original film and sticks it in her out tray, ready to post. Then she moves to the next photo in the pile. You can’t watch your friend developing the photos because the light would spoil the process. Your friend is working just like a quantum computer. Her letterbox is her input; the pile on her desk is her classical memory; while the film is with her in the dark room it is her quantum memory; her brain and hands are the quantum processor that develops the film; and the out tray on her desk is her output.

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