This is a great article on the 1981 conference which one could say gave birth to quantum computing / quantum information.
Technology Review: Quantum computing as we know it got its start 40 years ago this spring at the first Physics of Computation Conference, organized at MIT’s Endicott House by MIT and IBM and attended by nearly 50 researchers from computing and physics—two groups that rarely rubbed shoulders.
Twenty years earlier, in 1961, an IBM researcher named Rolf Landauer had found a fundamental link between the two fields: he proved that every time a computer erases a bit of information, a tiny bit of heat is produced, corresponding to the entropy increase in the system. In 1972 Landauer hired the theoretical computer scientist Charlie Bennett, who showed that the increase in entropy can be avoided by a computer that performs its computations in a reversible manner. Curiously, Ed Fredkin, the MIT professor who cosponsored the Endicott Conference with Landauer, had arrived at this same conclusion independently, despite never having earned even an undergraduate degree. Indeed, most retellings of quantum computing’s origin story overlook Fredkin’s pivotal role.
Fredkin’s unusual career began when he enrolled at the California Institute of Technology in 1951. Although brilliant on his entrance exams, he wasn’t interested in homework—and had to work two jobs to pay tuition. Doing poorly in school and running out of money, he withdrew in 1952 and enlisted in the Air Force to avoid being drafted for the Korean War.
A few years later, the Air Force sent Fredkin to MIT Lincoln Laboratory to help test the nascent SAGE air defense system. He learned computer programming and soon became one of the best programmers in the world—a group that probably numbered only around 500 at the time.
Upon leaving the Air Force in 1958, Fredkin worked at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN), which he convinced to purchase its first two computers and where he got to know MIT professors Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy, who together had pretty much established the field of artificial intelligence. In 1962 he accompanied them to Caltech, where McCarthy was giving a talk. There Minsky and Fredkin met with Richard Feynman ’39, who would win the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Feynman showed them a handwritten notebook filled with computations and challenged them to develop software that could perform symbolic mathematical computations. ...
... in 1974 he headed back to Caltech to spend a year with Feynman. The deal was that Fredkin would teach Feynman computing, and Feynman would teach Fredkin quantum physics. Fredkin came to understand quantum physics, but he didn’t believe it. He thought the fabric of reality couldn’t be based on something that could be described by a continuous measurement. Quantum mechanics holds that quantities like charge and mass are quantized—made up of discrete, countable units that cannot be subdivided—but that things like space, time, and wave equations are fundamentally continuous. Fredkin, in contrast, believed (and still believes) with almost religious conviction that space and time must be quantized as well, and that the fundamental building block of reality is thus computation. Reality must be a computer! In 1978 Fredkin taught a graduate course at MIT called Digital Physics, which explored ways of reworking modern physics along such digital principles.
Feynman, however, remained unconvinced that there were meaningful connections between computing and physics beyond using computers to compute algorithms. So when Fredkin asked his friend to deliver the keynote address at the 1981 conference, he initially refused. When promised that he could speak about whatever he wanted, though, Feynman changed his mind—and laid out his ideas for how to link the two fields in a detailed talk that proposed a way to perform computations using quantum effects themselves.
Feynman explained that computers are poorly equipped to help simulate, and thereby predict, the outcome of experiments in particle physics—something that’s still true today. Modern computers, after all, are deterministic: give them the same problem, and they come up with the same solution. Physics, on the other hand, is probabilistic. So as the number of particles in a simulation increases, it takes exponentially longer to perform the necessary computations on possible outputs. The way to move forward, Feynman asserted, was to build a computer that performed its probabilistic computations using quantum mechanics.
[ Note to reader: the discussion in the last sentences above is a bit garbled. The exponential difficulty that classical computers have with quantum calculations has to do with entangled states which live in Hilbert spaces of exponentially large dimension. Probability is not really the issue; the issue is the huge size of the space of possible states. Indeed quantum computations are strictly deterministic unitary operations acting in this Hilbert space. ]
Feynman's 1981 lecture Simulating Physics With Computers.
Feynman hadn’t prepared a formal paper for the conference, but with the help of Norm Margolus, PhD ’87, a graduate student in Fredkin’s group who recorded and transcribed what he said there, his talk was published in the International Journal of Theoretical Physics under the title “Simulating Physics with Computers.” ...
We derive a fundamental upper bound on the rate at which a device can process information (i.e., the number of logical operations per unit time), arising from quantum mechanics and general relativity. In Planck units a device of volume V can execute no more than the cube root of V operations per unit time. We compare this to the rate of information processing performed by nature in the evolution of physical systems, and find a connection to black hole entropy and the holographic principle.
Physics of Computation Conference, Endicott House, MIT, May 6–8, 1981. 1 Freeman Dyson, 2 Gregory Chaitin, 3 James Crutchfield, 4 Norman Packard, 5 Panos Ligomenides, 6 Jerome Rothstein, 7 Carl Hewitt, 8 Norman Hardy, 9 Edward Fredkin, 10 Tom Toffoli, 11 Rolf Landauer, 12 John Wheeler, 13 Frederick Kantor, 14 David Leinweber, 15 Konrad Zuse, 16 Bernard Zeigler, 17 Carl Adam Petri, 18 Anatol Holt, 19 Roland Vollmar, 20 Hans Bremerman, 21 Donald Greenspan, 22 Markus Buettiker, 23 Otto Floberth, 24 Robert Lewis, 25 Robert Suaya, 26 Stand Kugell, 27 Bill Gosper, 28 Lutz Priese, 29 Madhu Gupta, 30 Paul Benioff, 31 Hans Moravec, 32 Ian Richards, 33 Marian Pour-El, 34 Danny Hillis, 35 Arthur Burks, 36 John Cocke, 37 George Michaels, 38 Richard Feynman, 39 Laurie Lingham, 40 P. S. Thiagarajan, 41 Marin Hassner, 42 Gerald Vichnaic, 43 Leonid Levin, 44 Lev Levitin, 45 Peter Gacs, 46 Dan Greenberger. (Photo courtesy Charles Bennett)