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.
"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs