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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 Kuroyama on 2/14/2007 11:52:52 PM , Rating: 2
The difficulty of breaking RSA is based on the difficulty of factoring, and it is not known if factoring is NP-hard or not. My understanding is that quantum computers have only been shown to be better for very specific types of problems, often where some Fourier approach can be applied, and in particular I do not think they have been shown to solve any NP-hard problems. But I may be mistaken.

RE: What they don't tell you
By smitty3268 on 2/15/2007 12:48:18 AM , Rating: 4
Quantum computers can only solve BQP problems, which are definitely NP-hard but not necessarily NP-complete. However, they can definitely factor numbers using Shor's algorithm in O((log N)^3) time and O(log N) space. I believe it needs just over 2N qubits to solve N-bit RSA, so this 16-qubit system could only work on 8-bit RSA. They're claiming to have 1000 qubit systems by the end of 2008, but I'm skeptical. They even admit they're not sure the same principals will work as they scale the number of qubits up.

From Wikipedia:
BQP is suspected to be disjoint from NP-complete and a strict superset of P, but that is not known. Both integer factorization and discrete log are in BQP. Both of these problems are NP problems suspected to be outside BPP, and hence outside P. Both are suspected to not be NP-complete. There is a common misconception that quantum computers can solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time. That is not known to be true, and is generally suspected to be false.

RE: What they don't tell you
By peternelson on 2/17/2007 7:44:44 AM , Rating: 2
Factoring is useful for prime number studies, decryption etc.

Quantum computing may help us in these as mentioned in "Prime Numbers: A computational perspective" text.

IBM have already built a Quantum computer based on 4 Qubits.

It works.

They gave it a problem: take the number 15 and factorise it.

Very quickly the machine gave the solution that 3 and 5 are factors of 15.

That would be great to know if I or any child could not do it in their head.

Now, 8 qubits is obviously better, but we need a lot more quantum bits to rival the size numbers already being factorised by traditional methods like brute force or optimised methods like number field sieve.

Additionally, from the other daily tech article: "an examination into the technical details of Orion reveals that it is not a true quantum computer in the traditional sense of the term. D-Wave Chief Executive Herb Martin said that the Orion is not a true quantum computer, but rather a special-purpose machine that uses quantum mechanics to solve problems."

Nonetheless if it is COMMERCIAL (unlike the IBM one yet) CAN I BUY ONE? If not it's not really a "hard launch" is it?

How much extra does the refridgeration equipment cost and running costs?

If they can get the number of qubits up to a useful level, I definitely have uses for this technology, but an 8 qubit machine is just a proof of concept toy.

"Young lady, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" -- Homer Simpson

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