During mid-February, Canadian firm D-Wave Systems unveiled
and demonstrated what it calls “the world's first
commercially viable quantum computer.” The demonstration of the
technology was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California,
but the actual hardware remained in Burnaby, BC.
The via-satellite demonstration, coupled with the lack of ivory
tower support from academia, scientists quickly expressed
their skepticism about D-Wave's claims. Much skepticism of the Canadian
company’s claims may soon be washed away, as the U.S. National Aeronautics and
Space Administration confirmed last week that it had a hand in building a
special chip used in D-Wave’s demonstration, according to IDG
Specifically, the relationship between D-Wave and NASA is
one of designer and manufacturer. D-Wave designed the quantum-capable chips and
contracted NASA to build them. Requests for aid in building supercomputers are
nothing out of the ordinary for NASA’s Microdevices Laboratory, a unit of NASA's
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has experience dealing with sub-micrometer
dimensions and ultra-low temperatures in quantum computing.
“There has been activity in MDL in quantum technology,
including quantum computing, for around 10 years,” said Alan Kleinsasser,
principal investigator in the quantum chip program at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Superconducting quantum computing
technology requires devices and ultra-low [millikelvin] temperatures that are
also required in much of our sensor work. A couple of years ago, D-Wave
recognized that JPL is capable of producing the chips it wished to design.
There is no [private] industry that can deliver such superconducting devices.
So, we worked out a collaboration that produced the chips that D-Wave is
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
“You could characterize our announcement as being met with
enthusiasm from industry and skepticism from academia,” D-Wave CEO Herb Martin
said, adding that the demonstration was a proof-of-concept aimed at potential
business partners and clients. “Businesses aren't too fascinated about the
details of quantum mechanics, but academics have their own axes to grind. I can
assure you that our VCs look at us a lot closer than the government looks at
the academics who win research grants.”