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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jan-18 > A POSTDIGITAL WORLD


Quantum computers will take us beyond the binary age, into a perplexing new era. And they are already here

The future of Computing

Each day, humans create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. A byte is the amount of data needed by a computer to encode a single letter. A quintillion is one followed by 18 zeros. We float on an ocean of data.

You’d arrive at an even bigger number if you put it in terms of “bits”, the ultimate basic building block out of which every wonder of the digital age is built. A bit is simply a one or a zero or, equivalently, a single switch that must be either on or off. Put eight in a row, and you’ve got enough combinations to label and store every character on your keyboard—there are thus eight bits to the byte.

These days your newspapers, your tax records, your shopping list and perhaps your love life are nothing more than a long series of “ons” and “offs” generated by the digital processors that lurk in your phone, your car and your television. The correct sequence of ones and zeros is all that computers need in order to control the traffic lights at the end of your street, run a nuclear power station, or find you a date for next Friday night. From one perspective, they are simply doing—on a vast scale—the tallying and reckoning we have always done on our fingers: on our digits.

The “digital age” is a colossal achievement of human ingenuity. But this world of ones and zeros is not an end state. Humankind has passed through other ages before: bronze, iron, the era of steam and then of the telegraph, each of which constituted a revolution, before being brought to a close by some further advance of human ingenuity. And that raises a question—if our present digital age will pass just like all the rest, what might come after it?

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January 2018 issue: Five writers attempt to plot the impending advances in shopping, politics, sex, food and computing through 2018. James Plunkett looks at shopping and explains how personalised prices will hand even more power to the big companies; Theo Bertram outlines why political volatility is here to stay and what it means for us; Kate Devlin argues that sex robots are only a part of the impending sexual revolution; Stephanie Boland outlines why we’ll all end up eating lab grown food; and Jay Elwes explains the next steps in our computing quantum leap. Elsewhere in the issue: Dani Rodrik uncovers the truth behind the great globalisation lie—there were always going to be losers, Iona Craig delves into the war in Yemen—the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, Chris Tilbury explains why Britain urgently needs a plan for its failing prisons