Masahiro Kitagawa, a professor of engineering science at Osaka University, clearly remembers the day when he first saw a computer and was overwhelmed by its power.
Kitagawa was a junior high school student when he saw a huge mainframe computer “paint” Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa on a screen. It was during an exhibition on the roof of a building not far from where the World Exposition in Osaka was held several years earlier.
“It was a display of what today we call ASCII art,” the 47-year-old said. “But nonetheless, it was still a shock.”
At that time, computers were huge machines that sat regally in chilly temperature-controlled rooms and had virtually no direct link to ordinary people. However, that began to change dramatically from around the 1970s.
In 1971, Masatoshi Shima, then a young engineer, became one of the first people to develop a microprocessor — the tiny component considered the brain of a computer.
He had been invited to lead a task force to develop the component by Intel Corp. of the United States. There, Shima and his team came up with the 4004 model, the world’s first microprocessor, in March 1971.
“I was more thrilled at becoming able to create an electronic calculator by using the microprocessor than developing the chip itself,” Shima, now 62, recalled. “The development of the microprocessor means making parts of a machine.”
The birth of the microprocessor made the personal computer possible, and it has been fitted into such everyday gadgets as electric household appliances, mobile phones and game machines.
Robert N. Noyce, the late founder of Intel, once said he expected the number of microprocessors to become the yardstick of civilization, and some could argue that age has arrived.
Kitagawa said he expects the capabilities of computers to expand further, and his dream is a “quantum computer” — a “monster” that would be able to make a calculation in several days that would take the world’s most advanced machine, Japan’s “Earth Simulator” supercomputer, more than 100 billion years to complete.
Some predict that such a computer can be built by 2020, but Kitagawa isn’t so optimistic.
“I wonder whether it can be built in my lifetime. It may never be built,” he said. “The experiments are extremely difficult, and it is too risky for me to stake my entire life on that.”
Shigeki Takeuchi, 37, an assistant professor at the Research Institute for Electronic Science at Hokkaido University, said the mechanism of such a computer would be totally different from that of present-day computers.
“It would be able to deal with the parallel world that we read about in science fiction,” he predicted.
An ordinary computer changes information input into electrical conditions corresponding to figures “0” and “1” one after another, processes them and outputs the results of the calculation.
The quantum-particle computer manipulates the behavior of the light quantum, a light grain, and atoms, and makes a calculation. The major difference is that one light quantum and one atom have both “0” and “1” conditions at the same time.
“It is like a parallel existence of a world where I’ve lost in a lottery and a world where I’ve won,” Takeuchi explained. “These worlds move in a unique rhythm. That rhythm is gradually becoming able to be controlled.”
The basic idea for a quantum computer is to proceed with massive calculations in a parallel world of massive figures simultaneously and finally produce calculation results by controlling a rhythm.
Recently, Takeuchi has produced basic parts of the quantum computer circuit, and the light quantum. Still, many things remain unknown, he said.
In the meantime, Kitagawa is trying to make a calculation by manipulating atoms with radio waves. With this method, a U.S. researcher succeeded in resolving “15” into “3×5” in 2001.
Computers have developed amid both hopes that they would liberalize mankind as well as fears that they would bring mankind to bend to the will of a small number of people.
They have now penetrated deep into every corner of society by betraying past predictions, including: “the world only needs five computers” and “the average household has no need for computers.”
“Just like mankind is gradually advancing into space, I want to advance into this world,” Takeuchi said. “I feel it is like mankind’s karma.”