D-Wave, the self-proclaimed “Quantum Computing Company,” has developed a computer referred to as D-Wave Two, which according to the company, has the capability to revolutionize science and mathematics, although very few truly understand how it works.
The D-Wave Two utilizes “qubits” rather than “bits,” which are the basic units of information when communicating or computing digitally. However, unlike bits which store information as a 1 or 0, qubits can either be a 1 or a 0 simultaneously. This process is referred to as “quantum superposition,” which enables quantum computers (such as the D-Wave Two) to perform equations and manipulate multiple combinations of bits at the same time, making them very fast and powerful. The D-Wave Two, alongside quantum superposition, also utilizes quantum effects of entanglement, further complicating the process by which the D-Wave Two computes information. However, by utilizing quantum mechanics the D-Wave Two is able to solve very difficult problems that regular computers would otherwise be unable to.
In order to better describe the computing process of a quantum computer, D-Wave compares it to a landscape that includes valleys and mountains. Solving a problem would be like attempting to find the lowest point in this landscape, because that would give the lowest energy or the most optimal solution, with each possible solution being a mapped coordinate, with the higher altitude representing the higher amount of energy required to solve the problem. The average computer would be required to “walk over this landscape,” whereas a quantum computer would be able to simply burrow through the landscape. In other words, the D-Wave Two is able to consider every single possibility simultaneously, and can give the user not just the most optimal solution but some other alternatives as well. It is this ability that separates quantum computers from traditional computers, as a quantum computer can provide up to 10,000 answers in one second.
To operate such a computer, the D-Wave Two is kept in a device referred to as the “Fridge,” which is a closed cycle dilution refrigerator. The Fridge is ten feet tall, and inside the Fridge is the superconducting processor which is kept at -459.6°F, or -273°C, making it the coldest place in the universe (the second coldest place is the Boomerang Nebula 5,000 light years away, which is –458°F). The pressure inside is approximately 10,000,000,000 times lower than the average atmospheric pressure, and the power required to operate it is only 15.5 kilowatts, which does not increase as the scales of qubits being computed increases. A traditional super computer attempting to compute the same amount of information would require up to 3500.7 kilowatts and higher.
Currently, D-Wave (located in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada) has a very small list of customers including Lockheed Martin, NASA, an unnamed American intelligence agency (possibly the CIA or NSA), and receives a large amount of funding from Google. Part of the issue is the cost, as Lockheed Martin’s D-Wave Two cost $10,000,000. However, aside from the cost required to purchase one, there is also how there technology is so vastly different from traditional computers that many are unsure as to what to use quantum computers for. There are only five D-Wave Two computers in existence, although D-Wave suggests that such computers could be used for optimization, financial analysis, machine learning, software/hardware validation and verification, and pattern recognition and anomaly detection.
Recently, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) entered into the Space Act Agreement with NASA and Google in which they would research collaboratively the possible benefits from quantum computing, which involved the purchase of a D-Wave Two which is located in the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility at the NASA Ames Research Center. Initially, the computer will only have 512 qubits (which is standard for all D-Wave Two’s), although the computer will then be upgraded to 2,048 qubits once the technology becomes available. The D-Wave two will also be used at the facility to study issues related to aeronautics and artificial intelligence issues.
Despite the amount of funding and attention the D-Wave Two is receiving from very important agencies, it is still very unclear as to what quantum computing will lead to in terms of scientific advancement or mathematics, and whether or not it will usher in a new era of scientific progress.