Quantum computing is poised to usher in a new era in computing by allowing access to unprecedented speed and new problem solving capabilities. The Cipher Brief spoke to Robert Ewald, President of D-Wave U.S. – the only company currently selling functional quantum computers. He said that the quantum computing market is ready to explode, and that it can change how we approach everything from bioinformatics to finance.
The Cipher Brief: Quantum computing may be a new concept to some of our readers, could you briefly describe how a quantum computer differs from a conventional computer?
Robert Ewald: Conventional computers, which are made of billions of transistors, perform arithmetic and logical operations on numbers, characters, and other symbols. Their power comes from the immense speed at which they are able to do this, conducting billions of operations per second. The data for conventional computers are comprised of a collection of bits, each bit being either a 0 or a 1.
Quantum computing is radically different. A quantum computer exploits quantum mechanics, the laws of physics that govern all particles in the universe, to solve problems in an entirely different way. There are potentially several different ways to implement a quantum computer, though only one exists in production today – the D-Wave quantum computer is called a quantum annealer, and you can think of it as finding the lowest valley or valleys in a mountainous energy landscape each time it executes an instruction.
To do this, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can be 0, 1, or both 0 and 1 simultaneously. All quantum computers are expected to use quantum mechanical properties to carry out their calculation – superposition, entanglement, and probably quantum tunneling. Because of these unique properties, quantum computers can attack problems with huge solutions spaces (like more than all the particles in the universe) to address previously unsolvable problems. It’s necessary that the environment of the computer system be able to support these quantum mechanical properties. Today, that requires an extreme environment: the processor must be cooled to just above absolute zero in temperature (about -460 degrees F, or 180 times colder than interstellar space) and be kept in a deep vacuum so it’s isolated from the earth’s magnetic fields and other interference. At that temperature the circuits become superconducting, so they use virtually no power, whereas today’s supercomputers can use megawatts of power. The way in which we build such devices is also different, requiring some different materials, new design rules, and new processor architectures. Finally, the way we program quantum systems is entirely different from conventional computers.
TCB: What kinds of problems are quantum computers good at solving? What types of industries could benefit from the use of quantum computing, and how could they do so?
RE: The D-Wave computer is best suited for complex optimization problems, machine learning, and sampling – all of which exist in many different domains, such as mission planning, pattern recognition and anomaly detection, cancer research, and finance.
We’re working with leading government labs and private enterprise to develop algorithms and tools for their specific needs. Lockheed Martin is focused on how the quantum computer can address software verification and validation of aircraft control systems. NASA ‘s Ames Research Center is using D-Wave’s system to help search for new planets that might harbor life outside our solar system. Google is exploring machine learning with a goal of building more accurate models for everything from speech recognition, to web search, to bioinformatics. Los Alamos National Laboratory has a wide range of research topics in a variety of scientific and optimization areas.
Quantum computing could lead us to explore how materials behave, how new materials might be created, superior image recognition, more accurate financial forecasting, and precise genome mapping. We have great leading customers in different industries who are pioneering new applications which are the first ever to actually run on a quantum computer.
TCB: How do you see the market for quantum computing changing over the next 10 years? What factors are most critical to the continued growth of the industry, and what challenges still need to be overcome?
RE: Quantum computing is in its infancy – there is a lot of research going on, but only one commercial quantum computer company working with a handful of customers. I think that over the next 10 years, the quantum computing market is going to explode! We are going to see businesses, universities and government move forward in unprecedented ways to solve problems that are too complex for today’s computational systems. One of the most crucial factors for the continued growth of the quantum computing industry is accessibility – we need to get more researchers using our computers to further develop algorithms and applications. As we expand access to our systems, it’s critical that we hone our software tools so the emerging applications can more easily map onto the machines and make them easier to use.
We’re at a watershed moment – basically where traditional computing was for IBM in 1955. At that point, there were no compilers and minimal applications, and they were switching over to transistors and core memory. The compiler wasn’t introduced until 1957, and IBM, its customers and partners developed the software dramatically over the next 60 years to where we are today. As we drive research, experimentation, and algorithm development on our own machines, we expect that the hardware and software will improve more rapidly, because we will be able to borrow some techniques from conventional computing.
TCB: The government had an essential part in the development of conventional computers. How might the government benefit from quantum computing, and what is its role in supporting the development of quantum computers?
RE: The National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), created by executive order of President Barack Obama last July, is intended “to maximize [the] benefits of high-performance computing (HPC) research, development, and deployment.” Quantum computing development and commercialization is directly in line with the goals of this initiative. This work is especially imperative to government agencies that are exploring alternatives to conventional computing as Moore’s Law and data centers are reaching their limits. They’ve seen that there are problems traditional computers simply can’t solve no matter how many transistors you add or supercomputers you connect. In light of this reality, quantum computing represents the next era of computing, and this initiative is proof of the government’s interest in supporting innovation across several frontiers of high-performance computing.
Last year, Los Alamos National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, acquired a 1000+ qubit D-Wave 2X system as part of the NCSI. D-Wave is already working jointly with scientists and engineers at the laboratory to advance the state of algorithms, applications, and software tools for quantum computing. Today, the U.S. government is one of the strongest supporters of research and development for quantum computing.