Has a small business in British Columbia start-up built the world’s first viable quantum computer? NMA nominee: Science, Technology & the Environment
· Illustration by Takashi Okamoto
If, as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once said, no one really understands quantum mechanics, then you can appreciate the dilemma that faced Geordie Rose earlier this year as he stood at a podium in front of a room packed with journalists, skeptics, and potential investors, deep in the heart of Silicon Valley. As the chief technology officer and co-founder of D-Wave Systems, a Burnaby-based tech start-up that spun out of the University of British Columbia in 1999, Rose had the daunting task of explaining his company’s breakthrough, billed as “the world’s first commercial quantum computer.” With dark eyebrows looming over a bulldog face, and his powerful athlete’s body dwarfed by a pair of giant screens flanking the podium he faintly evoked Richard Nixon wilting under the bright lights of the Kennedy debates.
Building a quantum computer — a computer, that is, that harnesses the extraordinarily strange laws of quantum mechanics, which come into play at a subatomic level — has been one of the foremost goals of the scientific world for more than a decade. It would be a fundamentally transformative machine, capable of modelling and predicting the behaviour of almost anything in the universe. Most scientists believe it won’t be possible to build one for many decades, if ever. Rose begged to differ.
On the twin screens behind him, he called up a giant Sudoku puzzle — “a whimsical example,” he acknowledged with a smile. The audience watched as the blanks in the Sudoku were filled in on the screen via a remote connection to the prototype quantum computer, which was back on Burnaby Mountain, housed in a protective copper-walled box at -273°C, a hundredth of a degree above absolute zero. While solving a Sudoku is no great accomplishment (for a computer), Rose explained that the puzzle represents a class of mathematical problems that, on larger scales, classical computers are ill-equipped to handle, problems that crop up frequently in business contexts like route planning and database searching.
Pitched to venture capitalists and potential corporate customers, the demo was long on vision and short on quantum mechanics, and the scientific community was underwhelmed; by choosing not to submit their results to peer review before unveiling the computer, D-Wave was skipping the crucial step by which science legitimizes new discoveries. More surprising was the cursory coverage the announcement received in the press. Even without peer-reviewed results, “you would have expected there to be at least some initial spike of excitement,” says University of Waterloo researcher Jan Kycia. The media, it appears, simply didn’t realize how enormously significant a development a working quantum computer would be, especially one invented by a seventy-five person Canadian start-up not funded by the US government.
The motto of the United States’s National Security Agency (nsa), etched in a plaque across the road from the spy agency’s sprawling headquarters off Route 295 in Maryland, is “Always out front.” In the world of modern military intelligence, that primarily means staying ahead of rivals in the race for innovative technology to help monitor, decrypt, and analyze surveillance data. This need is the engine that has driven quantum-computing research since 1994, when then at&t computer scientist Peter Shor made an unexpected discovery. “Shor’s algorithm” proved that, in the unlikely event that a quantum computer could be built, it would be able to calculate the factors of very large numbers in a short time. While it’s easy to determine that the factors of twenty-one are three and seven, finding the factors of a number with 300 digits would take several millennia for any supercomputer yet built. Since large, impossible-to-factor numbers are used to encrypt everything from secure Internet-banking transactions to top-secret government communications, Shor’s algorithm had immediate implications for the nsa. Not only is it interested in “reading Osama’s email,” as some researchers put it, but it has to ensure that encrypted US government communications can’t be decoded down the road by yet-to-be-invented technology.
The nsa began pouring money into quantum computing, which up to then had been an obscure idea viewed mainly as a thought experiment, and it was soon joined by other agencies in the Department of Defense. By spreading funding to groups outside the United States, nsa program administrators also kept their fingers on the pulse of progress in virtually every significant research effort in the field. This year, US government spending on quantum-computing research reached $60 million, according to an nsa estimate — a hefty sum for a program whose most concrete progress after more than a decade remains a 2001 experiment that calculated that the factors of fifteen are three and five.
Viewed in this light, D-Wave’s Sudoku demonstration looks a little more impressive, especially since Rose says the company has never applied for or received money from the nsa or its sister agencies. D-Wave bills itself as the world’s only dedicated commercial quantum-computing enterprise, having raised about $45 million from angel investors and venture capitalists.
Success for D-Wave could be seen as the nsa’s worst nightmare: a breakthrough by a privately held foreign company that doesn’t disclose its results through the usual scientific channels. It would also run counter to the prevailing wisdom that military funding of basic (knowledge-for-its-own-sake) research is the best means of producing technological innovation. Give money to quantum physicists or astronomers, the argument goes, and your quest for a greater understanding of the universe will produce by-products like lasers and moon landings.
An opposing school of thought, articulated by historian Paul Forman, argues that post-World War II military funding has both diverted scientists from the pursuit of knowledge and proven to be a mostly ineffective way of developing new technology. “Most technological advance is incremental,” says Forman, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, “and incremental technological advance is not, by definition, coming from basic research.” D-Wave, in contrast to its nsa-funded counterparts in academia, is trying to build a computer, not make new discoveries about quantum mechanics, an approach that may give them an advantage. “It’s the computation part that is important,” Rose says, “not the quantum part.”
Classical computers encode their data as a series of binary bits, which can take on one of two different values, usually denoted by zero and one. Quantum computers, on the other hand, take advantage of the rules of quantum mechanics, which were developed to explain a series of puzzling experimental results in the early twentieth century. It turns out that the rules for governing the motion of very small particles such as electrons are wildly different from the ones we’ve observed from, say, throwing baseballs around. An electron can be in two places at once, it can “tunnel” through walls, and it can teleport. As a result, a “qubit,” the quantum version of a bit, can be zero, one, or — and this is the crucial part — zero and one at the same time. This is where the remarkable power of quantum computers resides, and it increases exponentially if you combine qubits together: a group of just sixteen qubits can represent 65,536 different numbers simultaneously.