Vern Brownell is D-Wave's president and CEO. Credit: D-Wave Systems
Quantum computing's full potential may still be years away, but there are plenty of benefits to be realized right now.
So argues Vern Brownell, president and CEO of D-Wave Systems, whose namesake quantum system is already in its second generation.
Launched 17 years ago by a team with roots at Canada's University of British Columbia, D-Wave introduced what it called "the world's first commercially available quantum computer" back in 2010. Since then the company has doubled the number of qubits, or quantum bits, in its machines roughly every year. Today, its D-Wave 2X system boasts more than 1,000.
The company doesn't disclose its full customer list, but Google, NASA and Lockheed-Martin are all on it, D-Wave says. In a recent experiment, Google reported that D-Wave's technology outperformed a conventional machine by 100 million times.
"We're at the dawn of this quantum computing age," Brownell said. "We believe we're right on the cusp of providing capabilities you can't get with classical computing."
While the bits used by traditional computers represent data as 0s or 1s, qubits can simultaneously be 0 and 1 through a state known as superposition, enabling new levels of performance and efficiency. Equipped with that power, researchers can solve problems they couldn't solve before -- or so the thinking goes.
"In almost every discipline you'll see these types of computers make this kind of impact," Brownell said, citing examples like drug discovery and climate modeling. "It opens up a completely new tool chest for scientists and developers."
Companies can already add quantum capabilities into their existing workloads, and customers can access D-Wave's machines in British Columbia remotely.
IBM recently announced its own quantum capabilities that are available via the cloud.
Increasingly, cloud access will be the primary deployment model for such technologies. Quantum computing will typically be used alongside conventional systems, Brownell said. "Whether you're using an iPhone, a desktop or something else, you can access quantum technology just like any other resource," he explained.
That's not to say there aren't challenges.
"We manufacture the most complicated superconducting chips in the world as a side effect of trying to build these machines," Brownell said.
Making those chips is no walk in the park, and neither is operating the resulting quantum systems. To achieve quantum effects, the D-Wave 2X's lattice of 1,000 qubits is cooled to 0.015 degrees Kelvin -- 180 times colder than interstellar space. The processor is shielded from almost all of Earth’s magnetic field and is kept in a vacuum, with pressure 10 billion times lower than that of the air around us.
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