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A view of a 16-qubit processor mounted in its sample holder

A picture of the Orion chip’s sample holder attached to a Leiden Cryogenics dilution fridge

An optical picture of the Orion processor with 16-qubits
Canadian company D-Wave shows off technology that promises to give quantum computing capabilities to mainstream industry

Canadian firm D-Wave Systems unveiled and demonstrated today what it calls “the world's first commercially viable quantum computer.” Company officials announced the technology at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California in a demonstration intended to show how the machine can run commercial applications and is better suited to the types of problems that have stymied conventional (digital) computers.

The demonstration of the technology was held at the Computer History Museum, but the actual hardware remained in Burnaby, BC where it was being chilled down to 5 millikelvin, or minus 273.145 degrees Celsius (colder than interstellar space), with liquid helium.

Quantum computers rely on quantum mechanics, the rules that underlie the behavior of all matter and energy, to accelerate computation. It has been known for some time that once some simple features of quantum mechanics are harnessed, machines will be built capable of outperforming any conceivable conventional supercomputer. But D-Wave explains that its new device is intended as a complement to conventional computers, to augment existing machines and their market, not to replace them.

To make the technology commercially applicable, D-Wave used the processes and infrastructure associated with the semiconductor industry. The D-Wave computer, dubbed Orion, is based on a silicon chip containing 16 quantum bits, or “qubits,” which are capable of retaining both binary values of zero and one. The qubits mimic each others’ values allowing for an amplification of their computational power. D-Wave says that its system is scalable by adding multiples of qubits. The company expects to have 32-qubit systems by the end of this year, and as many as 1024-qubit systems by the end of 2008.

"D-Wave's breakthrough in quantum technology represents a substantial step forward in solving commercial and scientific problems which, until now, were considered intractable. Digital technology stands to reap the benefits of enhanced performance and broader application," said Herb Martin, chief executive officer.

Quantum-computer technology can solve what is known as "NP-complete" problems. These are the problems where the sheer volume of complex data and variables prevent digital computers from achieving results in a reasonable amount of time. Such problems are associated with life sciences, biometrics, logistics, parametric database search and quantitative finance, among many other commercial and scientific areas.

As an example, consider the modeling of a nanosized structure, such as a drug molecule, using non-quantum computers. Solving the Schrodinger Equation more than doubles in difficulty for every electron in the molecule. This is called exponential scaling, and prohibits solution of the Schrodinger Equation for systems greater than about 30 electrons. A single caffeine molecule has more than 100 electrons, making it roughly 10^44 times harder to solve than a 30-electron system, which itself makes even high-end supercomputers choke.

Quantum computers are capable of solving the Schrodinger Equation with linear scaling exponentially faster and with exponentially less hardware than conventional computers. For a quantum computers, the difficulty in solving the Schrodinger Equation increases by a small, fixed amount for every electron in a system. Even very primitive quantum computers will be able to outperform supercomputers in simulating nature.

"Quantum technology delivers precise answers to problems that can only be answered today in general terms. This creates a new and much broader dimension of computer applications," Martin said.

"Digital computing delivers value in a wide range of applications to business, government and scientific users. In many cases the applications are computationally simple and in others accuracy is forfeited for getting adequate solutions in a reasonable amount of time. Both of these cases will maintain the status quo and continue their use of classical digital systems," he said.

"It's rational to assume that quantum computers will always contain a digital computing element thereby increasing the amortization of investments already made while expediting the availability of the power of quantum acceleration," he said.

For more technical information quantum computing, read D-Wave founder and CTO Geordie Rose’s blog.

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RE: What they don't tell you
By darkfoon on 2/14/2007 7:50:54 PM , Rating: 2
I would believe that they have more supercomputing power than they lead people to believe, but I do not think they have machines like this.

I remember reading an interview with Jim Christy, where he states that he is "worried" that he and his team won't be able to crack a drive with Vista's Bit-locker Drive encryption on it. Now, that could just be reverse psychology and in reality bit-locker could be easier for his team to break than competing technologies.

So perhaps, there still is a need for faster computing that the gov't doesn't already have, and cracking encrypted volumes still takes considerable time.

RE: What they don't tell you
By KristopherKubicki on 2/14/2007 8:11:12 PM , Rating: 3
Well, let's consider two things: 1.) Christy is an exec in the Air Force investigation unit. I'm not knocking the AF, it certainly is the most *wired* department in the military, but there is a lot of evidence that suggests the capabilities of the NSA and CIA are significantly more advanced.

2.) In the late 80s and early 90s, U.S. private research groups and academia had a golden age with regards to quantum algorithms. Heck, everything Shor touched was gold research at the time. Yet from 1995 to 2005, the research goes a little dark. You still have announcements and breakthroughs, but its once a year instead of every three weeks. Since 2005, you have a new announcement every week about quantum computing again.

Not to sound like a conspiracy nut, but if a government agency had a quantum computer, it would be the 21st century equivalent of "the bomb." How many other research projects has the U.S. government easily hid for decades before the public caught up? (hint, it's really easy to do when you're fighting a war).

I think its entirely possible the U.S. has been doing research on this outside the public eye for decades, and a few prototype machines tucked away for high-priority uses seems very plausible.

RE: What they don't tell you
By msva124 on 2/14/2007 8:24:34 PM , Rating: 2
Nobody knows for sure. I'd say it's unlikely, given that back during WWII it was "in" to be a scientist for the government, cause you were saving the world. Now they're kind of at odds with the scientific community.

RE: What they don't tell you
By Ringold on 2/14/2007 8:29:59 PM , Rating: 2
Well, using the NRO example, it started in 1960 but its very existance was classified until 1992.

Like I said in another post, I think it's wrong to underestimate scientists in secret facilities with billion dollar budgets.

Likewise, I fully believe that the discussion is 99% moot because if they do have it it's likely that few people breathing today will be around to hear them admit to it. The government is becoming more opaque over time, not more transparent, so unlike some Cold War toys, things they've got today may never be disclosed.

RE: What they don't tell you
By paydirt on 2/15/2007 10:21:50 AM , Rating: 2
There's a lot of secrecy going on. For example an acquaintance of mine wrote a research paper on training sensors to behave like the human eye; the government immediately classified it and said it was theirs. This was probably more than 10 years ago.

Regardless, I prefer to remain blissfully unaware. I like my life better this way. :)

RE: What they don't tell you
By hubajube on 2/15/2007 1:32:46 PM , Rating: 2
I don't know about the CIA but the NSA has a HUGE budget and a ton of very advanced tools. Not to mention, VERY smart people.

RE: What they don't tell you
By Ringold on 2/14/2007 8:25:50 PM , Rating: 2
I'm of a similar school of thought as Kristopher there. I'm by no means a conspiracy theorist, but the fuzzy nature of the NRO budget means that only god and the individual agencies themselves have the slightest clue as to what they have and don't have. It would neither surprise me if they had a quantum computer in every spy satellite or if they didn't. And the NRO is only one of an alphabet soup of intelligence agencies that're steeped in secrecy and flush with more money than the GDP of third world countries.

As wasteful and inefficient as government is, never underestimate the power of a few PhD government wonks in secret lairs/labs and billion dollar budgets. ;)

"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?... So why the f*** doesn't it do that?" -- Steve Jobs

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