Imagine a computer that can teach your mobile phone to recognize any object it sees, or one that can instantly find optimal travel routes for thousands of planes to avoid a snowstorm and deliver their passengers safely to a destination, or even one that can trawl through millions of social media posts to identify a potential terrorist.
Traditional computers, including supercomputers, require substantial time to crunch that kind of big data. But scientists have long theorised that a computer that harnesses the often-peculiar principles of quantum mechanics could perform these kinds of calculations in a flash, and even solve problems that would take years for a normal computer to churn through.
The scientific community is still debating whether a true quantum computer can ever be built. But one quantum computing company, D-Wave, is forging ahead. It has already won over the Pentagon’s biggest weapons builder and has now received another huge endorsement: a three-way collaboration between the US space agency Nasa, search giant Google and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) that it will buy the second D-Wave Two computer.
D-Wave Systems, a Canadian-based company, came to prominence in 2007 when it stunned the scientific community by announcing that it had built the world’s first quantum computer. That claim was also met with scepticism and critics, particularly from scientists who wanted peer-reviewed, published proof of the claims, rather than just a public announcement.
Since that time, however, D-Wave has not only published in the scientific literature, it’s also won important customers. The first was Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defence company, which announced earlier this year that it was buying the upgraded version of its computer, the D-Wave Two, a 512 qubit quantum computer (it had bought an earlier version of D-Wave two years ago).
That a defence company would be interested in a quantum computer is not surprising: the Pentagon and US intelligence community have long been the leading funders of quantum computing in the United States. The spy world, in particular, has looked to quantum computing for its use in encryption and code breaking – a mainstay of the intelligence business.
The interest from the national security world also suits D-Wave. “Frankly, we don’t want thousands of customers, we want a handful of really deep collaborative customers to work on how they can harness this kind of technology, so in the initial phase it’s relatively low volume, low number of customers that we are selective about,” says Vern Brownell, CEO of D-Wave Systems. “On the that list are the DOD and the intelligence community.”
What makes a quantum computer valuable to the military and spy world is the way it makes calculations. A classical computer does useful calculations by processing bits that represent ones and zeroes. But a “standard” quantum computer uses the idea of quantum entanglement – whereby information can exist as both a one and a zero or an infinite number of “superpositions” of the two states at the same time. Effectively these "quantum bits", or qubits as they are known, can work in parallel rather than sequentially, allowing quantum computers to solve certain problems orders of magnitude faster than its classical counterparts.
There are, however, different approaches to quantum computing: D-Wave’s computer is a special type of device based on a technique known as adiabatic quantum computing, which involves using loops of superconducting metal to cool the system. If this is done in a precise way, the machines qubits seek out a low-energy state that represents the answer to a given problem.