Canada goes small for more powerful computing
Earlier this year, a little known Canadian technology company called D-Wave Systems Inc. announced that it had built a next-generation quantum computing processor. The breakthrough was made using findings of Hidetoshi Nishimori, a professor of quantum annealing — an algorithm used for finding the best solution to a difficult problem — at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
Headquartered in Burnaby, British Columbia, D-Wave is a leader in the field of quantum computing, one of the most promising paths to advancing the power of the machines that now run our world.
To understand quantum computing, one must grasp the fundamentals of physics at the subatomic level. At this small size, the laws of physics become counterintuitive and spooky.
For instance, depending on how they’re observed, subatomic particles such as photons and electrons exhibit properties of both particles and waves. As a result, objects can theoretically exist in all possible states simultaneously. According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, it is not possible to precisely know both the speed and position of a particle. Measuring one affects the other.
Another unusual property exhibited by subatomic particles is known as quantum entanglement. Regardless of the distance between two particles, they seem to communicate instantly. Einstein famously called this behaviour “spooky action at a distance.”
This spookiness holds promise for those looking to break through the limitations that silicon places on the future of computing. Quantum computers exploit phenomena such as quantum superposition, entanglement and tunnelling using ultra-low temperatures and superconductivity.
Classical computers can track the binary states of millions of transistors, but a quantum computer can track many other states. Moreover, whereas a bit must be either one or zero, a qubit — short for quantum bit — can be both one and zero.
It’s perhaps easier to understand the difference between quantum and classical computers with an analogy presented by Microsoft Corporation Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella. He explained how a classical computer navigating a maze would try one path, then go back and try another. This would continue again and again until it solved the maze.
A quantum computer, however, can try all paths at once. Microsoft Corporation, Google LLC, IBM and Intel Corporation are some of the major tech brands now working on quantum computers, which promise to solve very complex problems, such as modeling chemical processes, that are far beyond the ability of traditional machines.
Founded in 1999, D-Wave has made a name for itself as the first company to commercialize quantum computers. The machines it produces are designed for quantum annealing functions — a new method for minimizing multidimensional functions — and not intended as general-purpose computers, which has led some to dismiss them entirely as quantum computers. But they have been used by the likes of Google and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which launched a quantum computing artificial intelligence lab in 2013.
“As a company, we have a grand ambition of solving the world’s hardest problems,” Colin P. Williams, vice president of strategy and corporate development at D-Wave, said during a presentation in Tokyo last year. “In general, the quantum machine is not only faster than the classical, but it scales a lot more favourably than the classical as well.”
Williams, who authored the first textbook in the field of quantum computing, also described how a dilution refrigerator keeps the D-Wave processor close to absolute zero — 180 times colder than interstellar space — to achieve quantum effects. Inside the processor, which is a bit smaller than 12 cm, the qubits are actually superconductor currents generating magnetic fields.
“You can create an object that’s actually small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and it has more components than there are particles in the entire universe,” Williams said. “That’s what superposition gives you.”
While the technology has the potential to be 100 million times faster than the classical machines, Williams described how both kinds of computers could work together to provide better solutions to a given application.
For instance, a radiation treatment plan for a cancer patient was optimized with a hybrid system and produced a better solution than a conventional one, meaning less collateral damage to surrounding tissue.
D-Wave has also begun supplying web-based machine learning services to the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab, where startups are working on probabilistic machine learning models. These programs can learn from incomplete data and infer missing data, such as filling in what an entire face looks like when given a picture of a partial face.
Companies in Japan are also finding uses for D-Wave technology. Toyota Tsusho, the Toyota Group’s trading arm, is using a D-Wave system for client solutions to try to optimize everything from factory efficiency to delivery routes for trucks.
Meanwhile, global automotive components manufacturer Denso Corporation, is experimenting with D-Wave machines to reduce traffic congestion and find the optimum routes based on vehicles’ GPS data.
In 2017, D-Wave announced its latest system, the 2000Q, which doubles the number of qubits for potential applications such as machine learning and cybersecurity. Earlier this year, the company confirmed new funding of $C20 million from Canada’s PSP Investments, along with the fabrication and testing of a next-generation prototype processor. It’s providing added momentum for the quest to build a general-purpose quantum computer, which could prove truly revolutionary.
“The design and fabrication of this prototype represent major advances in our capability to build the world’s most complex superconducting circuits, and we did it ahead of schedule,” D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell said in a press release. “We will use this funding to continue to deliver systems and software that provide real-world quantum computing today, and to push our technology forward.”