Companies—and countries—are battling for leadership in this nascent technology that promises faster data crunching than ever before.

IN 1982, NOBEL PRIZE–WINNING physicist Richard Feynman conceived of an ultrapowerful calculator that relies on microscopic particles to operate. He called his idea a “quantum” computer, referring to the laws that govern nature at a subatomic level.

Today, some of the technology industry’s biggest companies, such as IBM, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and China’s Alibaba, have latched onto the idea. They, along with upstarts

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