So you think your overclocked Quad Core desktop kicks processing butt? Imagine a computer that has more possible states than the number of atoms in the universe.

Quantum computing has been the Holy Grail for computer scientists even since it was realised that it was theoretically possible to use the quantum states of atoms in superconducting materials to solve previously impossible calculations, such as making (and breaking) codes based on large prime numbers.

Number crunching

A team of researchers at boffin farm MIT has just solved one key problem in quantum computing - knowing what's going on inside your computer. They're using a process called amplitude spectroscopy to analyse atoms over huge frequency ranges.

Unlike normal digital computers, which work with 'bits' of information that are either 0 or 1, quantum computers' 'qbits' can be in multiple states at once, vastly increasing their potential processing power. The MIT team has found a way to measure atoms' energy states extremely accurately, opening the door to the development of a real quantum computer.

However, the research is funded by the US Air Force and Department of Defense, so the first thing we'll know about a vastly intelligent super-computer will probably be when every computer, mobile phone and TV in the world suddenly starts playing the Star Spangled Banner.