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Need for speed

By Bryan Borzykowski | July 14, 2014
Need for speed
When Vern Brownell got headhunted to join D-Wave Systems Inc. as CEO in 2009, the American executive thought it might have been a joke. After all, Burnaby, B.C.-based D-Wave claimed to have a quantum computer in the works.

“I was skeptical at first,” Brownell recalls. “I had heard that quantum computing was 20 years way from becoming a practical reality.”

The former Chief Technology Officer at the Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. soon learned that D-Wave’s four founders had been trying to build this new kind of computer for nearly a decade. Having made a prototype in 2003, they would sell their first device a year after Brownell took over. “I had a billion-dollar budget at Goldman, and we bought a lot of technology,” he says. “But I didn’t see anything that could change the world the way this will.”

Inside the black box

Quantum computers don’t resemble anything you might find at Best Buy. D-Wave’s machines, which are being used by Google Inc., NASA, and aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin Corporation, inhabit a three-metre-high black box that looks like a storage locker. They also behave differently from traditional computers, which process information as bits that only exist in two states: a zero or a one.

For some time, physicists have known that atoms and other particles can exist in two states simultaneously. Quantum computers exploit this phenomenon with “qubits,” which are far more powerful than ordinary bits because they can be a zero, a one or both. This “superposition” lets them do many calculations at once. 

Although D-Wave’s current rigs keeps pace with the speediest conventional computer, in a few decades quantum machines will process vast quantities of data almost instantly, explains Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Geordie Rose. A problem that would take about 32 years to solve today could be done in 30 seconds. “The systems will be blindingly fast,” Rose says.  

One of the challenges that he and his colleagues had to confront was how to handle those qubits. If you look at or disturb them in any way, they lose their quantum properties and go back to being your average bits.

That helps explain why D-Wave’s system – the only quantum computer in existence – is a bleak-looking box. Its insides are cooled to absolute zero (-273 C) so the processor’s superconducting metal circuitry can function, light and air are banished, sound can’t enter and radiation stays out. Because nothing can disturb the qubits, they stay in their superposition state. 

Quantum leap

There will be three real-life uses for quantum computers: producing medicines, cracking codes and solving complex optimization problems, says Scott Aaronson, an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pharmaceutical companies will use them to search through “zillions” of molecules to find optimum combinations for different drugs, Aaronson explains. Quantum computers will unlock the most complex codes in minutes, and corporations will be able to view all the data they collect and figure out better ways of doing things.

Aaronson thinks the latter application might have the biggest impact. For example, airplane manufacturers could find the ideal wing design, and investment firms could create new models that better predict where the market is headed. “All sorts of things fall into this huge category,” Aaronson notes. 

It will probably take decades for the world to feel the full effect of quantum computing, Rose says. As such computers grow more powerful, they’ll allow people to better understand the laws of physics, he wagers. Quantum machines could also cure cancer and send humans deep into space. “We’ll understand everything from basic science to the [evolution of the] universe with these systems,” Rose says. 

It’s hard to imagine everyone having a quantum computer at home, but you never know. “The technology 40 years from now will be so different,” Rose says. “It will be like the iPhone compared to the first computers that took up an entire room.”

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