All too often it seems we’re presented with technologies that are always at least a decade away from seeing some sort of practical application. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem, one of research not being able to continue on ideas that don’t have the potential to produce something useful (read: profitable) and so often we’re introduced to an idea long before it becomes reality so that it can in fact become a reality. However every so often one of these technologies makes it past that crucial line of finding its way into the real world and the latest of which is the idea of quantum computing.
I can’t remember when I first introduced to the idea behind quantum computers but I have been fascinated with them for quite a while. Quantum computers differ from regular computers in that their system is made up of qubits which are able to hold either a 0, 1 or a quantum superposition of any of these. What this means is that when compared to traditional computers which can only be in one state at any one time a quantum computer can be in any number of the possible states simultaneously. Thus as the number of qubits increases the amount of computing power available increases exponentially, theoretically out-pacing any conventional processor. Such computers would have big impacts on tasks that require large amounts of raw computing power like chemical reaction simulations and breaking encryption schemes.
I can remember reading about the first public demonstration of a quantum computer back in 2007 from a company called D-Wave. At the time I wasn’t 100% sure if they’d actually created what they claimed they had as there was a bit of controversy on the matter but re-reading the articles today showed that the criticism was more leveled at the claims D-Wave was making about their systems capabilities rather than it actually being a quantum computer. I really hadn’t followed the subject much until D-Wave popped up in my feed reader last week with the bold claim that you could now buy yourself at 128 qubit quantum computer:
Whether or not D-Wave has actually built a quantum computer is still a matter of debate (though, a study authored by the company and published in Nature claims to prove its success) but, whatever it is these crafty Canadians have created, you can order one now and start crunching qubits with abandon. The D-Wave One is the first commercially available quantum computer and, while its 128-qubit processor can only handle very specific tasks and is easily outperformed by traditional CPUs, it could represent a revolution in the field of supercomputing.
Now it’s one thing to put something up for sale and another to actually deliver that product. Not many people (or companies for that matter) would have the $10 million required to purchase one of these systems handy so initially it looked like it would be a while before we actually saw one of these systems purchased. Not a week later did D-Wave announce that they had sold their very first quantum computing system to Lockheed Martin with details around the purpose of the system remaining secret for now. To say that I’m surprised that they managed to sell one that quickly would be putting it lightly, but it’s also telling of what they’ve accomplished.
Lockheed Martin, whilst being no slouch when it comes to taking bets on new technology, wouldn’t be sinking $10 million into a product that wouldn’t deliver as advertised. Nor would they want D-Wave to publicly announce it either should they end up looking the fool should their quantum computer turn out to be not so quantum. On the surface then it would seem that D-Wave is the real deal and their 128 qubit system is the first commercially available quantum computer and we could be on the cusp of yet another computing power explosion.
So does this mean that in the next few years we’ll see quantum computers appear at the consumer level? Probably not, in their current state they require liquid helium cooling and we’re still many advances away from making quantum computers in form factors that we’re all familiar with. It does mean however that we’re close to being able to solve harder problems more rapidly though and the subsequent improves to D-Wave’s systems will make doing such tasks again exponentially easier. With Lockheed Martin basically verifying D-Wave’s credibility I’m very interested to see who lines up next for a quantum computer, especially if they’re going to be a bit more open as to what they plan to do with it.