Although the original Church-Turing thesis involved the abstract mathematical notion of computability, physicists as well as computer scientists often interpret it as saying something about the scope and limitations of physical computing machines. For example, Wolfram (1985) claims that any physical system can be simulated (to any degree of approximation) by a universal Turing machine, and that complexity bounds on Turing machine simulations have physical significance. For example, if the computation of the minimum energy of some system of n particles requires at least an exponentially increasing number of steps in n, then the actual relaxation of this system to its minimum energy state will also take an exponential time. Aharonov (1998) strengthens this thesis (in the context of showing its putative incompatibility with quantum mechanics) when she says that a probabilistic Turing machine can simulate any reasonable physical device at polynomial cost. Further examples for this thesis can be found in Copeland (1996).

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Theoretical as it may seem, the question "what is quantum in quantum computing?" has an enormous practical consequence. One of the embarrassments of quantum computing is the fact that, so far, only one algorithm has been discovered, namely Shor's, for which a quantum computer is significantly faster than any known classical one. It is almost certain that one of the reasons for this scarcity of quantum algorithms is related to the lack of our understanding of what makes a quantum computer quantum (see also Preskill 1998 and Shor 2004). As an ultimate answer to this question one would like to have something similar to Bell's (1964) famous theorem, i.e., a succinct crispy statement of the fundamental difference between quantum and classical systems, encapsulated in the non-commutative character of observables. Quantum computers, unfortunately, do not seem to allow such simple characterization. Observables—in the quantum circuit model there are only two, the preparation of the initial state and the observation of the final state, in the same basis, and of the same variable, at the end of the computation—are not as important here as in Bell's case since any measurement commutes with itself. The non-commutativity in quantum computing lies much deeper, and it is still unclear how to cash it into useful currency. Quantum computing skeptics (Levin 2003) happily capitalize on this puzzle: If no one knows why quantum computers are superior to classical ones, how can we be sure that they are, indeed, superior?

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