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.

"If you look at the last five years, if you look at what major innovations have occurred in computing technology, every single one of them came from AMD. Not a single innovation came from Intel." -- AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in 2007

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