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07/09/2004 07:00:00

Students at Caltech Summer Camp Explore Future Types of Computers

PASADENA, Calif.—Rob Figueiredo has a standing $1,000 bet with a classmate back at MIT about when a certain milestone in quantum computation will be achieved. Considering that there is no such thing as a practical quantum computer—or at least not yet—Figueiredo's enthusiasm may seem overly optimistic.

But optimism and enthusiasm are typical for the 50 college students attending the "Computing Beyond Silicon" boot camp at the California Institute of Technology this summer. The students are currently attending lectures on a variety of heady topics such as quantum, DNA, and molecular computing, as well as new developments in the world of nanotechnology that could soon make even the silicon-based computers we currently use seem quaint and obsolete. The overall goal of the camp is aimed toward finding new ways to build faster and better computers.

"I think there will be a 64-bit number factored by a quantum computer in the next 10 years," Figueiredo said recently during a coffee break with some of his fellow students. University of Washington junior Eliana Hechter is not so forthcoming with a specific prediction, but says that the excitement surrounding quantum computers has motivated her to take a quantum mechanics course when she returns to Seattle in the fall. She notes in passing that the government would like to see a 128-bit number factored in 30 seconds, and that the best a quantum computer can now do is factor the single number 15 in 30 seconds.

Paolo Codenotti, a student at the University of Chicago, thinks a practical quantum computer may be available within the next 15 years. Blair Andres-Beck, a senior at Smith College, adds that a breakthrough such as a useful quantum computer is inevitable. "We don't know what it will look like yet, but we'll find it."

All this may be confusing to a nonspecialist, but the students are talking about a future kind of computer that is expected to perform tasks that simply cannot be accomplished today. The factoring of numbers is a convenient sort of "password" that allows our credit cards to be protected and our secret spy messages from overseas to remain secret. While some factors of small numbers are straightforward—the factors for the number 15 are 1, 3, and 5, by the way—the factors for an astronomically large number with 128 digits would take the fastest computers available today literally billions of years to uncover. But a quantum computer would vastly reduce the number of steps needed to get at the answer, which would have tremendous consequences for the world of information—and information protection.

But quantum computation is just one of the new "substrates" the students are looking at this summer. The program is intended to introduce students to a new world of computer engineering, where new understandings of the physical and biological world are employed in new ways to create a new world of information technology. The methods may be based on the weird world of quantum mechanics for quantum computers, or may employ the chemistry of the DNA molecule for computation, or else some other molecular architecture. The common denominator is to get bright, capable people involved in research that will lead to novel computational machines.

According to Andre DeHon, an assistant professor of computer science and an expert in molecular computing, the camp is unique in introducing the brightest young students today to a potential future in which computers will lead to new scientific breakthroughs not currently possible. "I think the promise of computing beyond the silicon barrier has to do with understanding nature and the universe," DeHon says. "We need more powerful computers in order to unlock the secrets to life, but we are running out of room for improvement."

Presenters at this year's summer camp have included Jehoshua Bruck, the Moore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems and Electrical Engineering at Caltech, who spoke on the future of information science and technology in the research institution; Andre DeHon; Michelle Effros, an associate professor of electrical engineering; James Heath, the Gilloon Professor and professor of chemistry, who is also a prominent figure in the field of molecular computing; Hideo Mabuchi, an associate professor of physics and control and dynamical systems, who works on quantum computation; and Erik Winfree, an assistant professor of computer science and computation and neural systems, who is an expert on biomolecular computing.

Other presenters included David Bacon, postdoctoral scholar at Caltech's Institute for Quantum Information; Yaakov Benenson, doctoral student at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel; Marc Bockrath, an assistant professor of applied physics at Caltech; Isaac Chuang, associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT; Raissa D'Souza of Microsoft Research; Michael Elowitz, assistant professor of biology and applied physics at Caltech; Chris Fuchs of Bell Labs; Péter Gács, professor of computer science at Boston University; Alain Martin, professor of computer science at Caltech; David Meyer of the UC San Diego mathematics faculty; John Preskill, the MacArthur Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech; John Savage, professor of computer science at Brown University; Thanos Siapas, assistant professor of computation and neural systems at Caltech; Greg Snider of Hewlett-Packard; Chris Umans, assistant professor of computer science at Caltech; Deli Wang of the materials science department at UC Santa Barbara; Bernard Yurke of Bell Labs Lucent Technologies; and Chongwu Zhou, assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California.

Additional information on the summer camp is available at, or by calling Peter Mendenhall at (626) 395-4142.

Written by Robert Tindol