Betting big

The world of computing is currently focused on one particular goal: Building a quantum computer. Like some sort of weird jigsaw puzzle, the pieces that are required for a functioning quantum computer are slowly being developed day-by-day.

And given the numerous, world-changing benefits of quantum computing, big name companies (such as Google, NASA, and Lockheed Martin) seem to be turning to one, primary company for their quantum needs: D-Wave, a British Columbia-based company.

Last year, the company sold one of its systems to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was the developer of the first atom bomb. It has also inked contracts with Lockheed Martin and Google for regular upgrades to the latest model of its quantum chip.

The System has also been installed in the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab (QuAIL), a collaboration between  Google, NASA, and the Universities Space Research Association.

Companies have also done extensive testing of D-Wave's systems, and they are promising. Just this December, Google announced that D-Wave's latest model was 100 million times faster than its conventional computing counterpart at solving a test problem involving almost 1,000 variables.

All that said, D-Wave’s chips are controversial among quantum physicists, mainly because no one has been able to conclusively prove that the devices can tap into quantum physics to beat out conventional computers. But Hartmut Neven, leader of Google’s Quantum AI Lab in Los Angeles, claimed that his team of researchers attained that proof.

They had the D-Wave computer race against a conventional model with a single processor, and Neven notes, “For a specific, carefully crafted proof-of-concept problem we achieve a 100-million-fold speed-up.”

How it works

D-Wave's latest offering is the D-Wave 2x, essentially a limited version called a 'quantum annealer.' Quantum annealing involves converting an optimization problem into a 3D landscape of hills and valleys, where the deepest valley is the best solution.

Normally, classical computers solve the problem by hopping from point to point. A phenomenon called quantum tunnelling allows D-Wave's computer actually tunnel through the hills, finding the solution more quickly and easily.

However, this is not a "universal quantum computer," the kind that can solve any kind of problem—the holy grail of quantum computing. It is limited to one purpose only, optimization.

Also, working with D-Wave's systems is a bit like working with the early versions of the computer. According to Rupak Biswas, deputy director of exploration technology at NASA Ames Research Center, "This machine does not have compilers or programming languages… you run the system, and then the system comes back and gives you a stream of 0s and 1s, and you try to figure out what the answer is."

That said, the work is bringing us ever closer to (hopefully) a fully functioning quantum computer. With any luck, the next few years will reveal conclusive results.

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