Welcome to Quantum computing

The coldest place in the universe used to be a gaseous cloud called the Boomerang Nebula, 5,000 light years from Earth. The temperature was measured at approximately -485°f, just a whit above absolute zero.

But now the coldest place in the universe is in Burnaby, Canada, near Vancouver, headquarters for D-Wave, the first company to manufacture a commercially available quantum computer. There are five D-Wave Two computers in existence. They are 10-feet high boxes using a cylindrical cooling device that chills its niobium computer chip to -459.6°f, two degrees colder than the Boomerang Nebula.

 Follow the Money

Scientists are still divided over whether D-Wave has actually created a functioning quantum computer, but some very powerful and well-funded companies, namely Google and Lockheed-Martin, and at least one government intelligence agency, which the company declines to name, have purchased units and are currently testing them.

Google has partnered with NASA to share resources and dream up problems for the new computing device to see what it can do. The technology is so exotic, its basic operating system exists in a world so alien to what we consider common sense, that agreement on whether the new computers are actually functioning on the quantum level is years away.

As classical computers reach the limit of how tiny they can make the transistors that form the PC’s CPU — and here we’re talking about the size of one atom — we must move into the subatomic realm to achieve further advances in computational speed. But there’s more to it than the limitations of circuitry that still functions in the classical mode.

Really. A Million Times Faster?

A quantum computer, first proposed by Richard Feynman, famous physicist and a pioneer in quantum physics, can theoretically operate at least one million times faster than traditional computers. It could perform millions of calculations per cycle, orders of magnitude faster and more capable than traditional computers.

A quantum computer achieves this remarkable computing power by making use of the very weird properties of particle behavior at the quantum level. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain quantum physics; rather, we will note just those behaviors that a quantum computer would use to perform at this level of computation.

In a classical computer, the transistor is at the heart of the machine. It can function in just two states, on or off. That is, it either has an electric charge or it doesn’t. This means it does math in “bits,” flipping between one and zero. But quantum computers use “qubits,” which can be one and zero at the same time, or any number in between, simultaneously.

Neither Flesh Nor Fowl

This is called superposition, this state of uncertainty. At the quantum level, matter behaves strangely. Photons, electrons, x-rays, and other more exotic subatomic objects can act like waves or particles, depending on how one observes them. Electrons for instance don’t orbit the nucleus as planets orbit the sun. They form a haze of uncertainty, neither wave nor particle, until they are actually observed. This observation causes decoherence, or to settle into a particle or wave, depending on the circumstances of the conscious observer.

Another property of quantum physics is called “entanglement,” in which two particles are linked, and changes in one causes the same change in the other at the very same instant, whether the two are adjacent or light years apart. How that information is transmitted, at faster than light speed, caused Albert Einstein fits, who simply refused to believe it and disparagingly called it “spooky action at a distance,” a term that stuck.

But it has been proven rigorously, both mathematically and in experiments. Einstein became somewhat an object of pity among in the scientific community for his attempts to disprove it, since his theory of relativity clearly concluded that nothing could travel faster than light.

So Now What Do We Do?

So Feynman theorized that if you could hold particles in the state of superposition, being more than one thing at a time, you could create new kinds of computation. The question then became, what would such a device be useful for, or, to put it more simply, what would we ask it?

Two other properties of quantum physics come into play here. One is the multiverse, or parallel universes; and electron tunneling, or traveling between those universes. In the multiverse, an infinite number of quantum computers are working on the problem or task they’ve been programmed to solve. Tunneling and entanglement retrieve the best results. It’s much more complex than this, but I simplify. Tunneling is also crucial to other problems, such as optimization, discussed below.

Conventional computers are simply not very good at some tasks. Factoring large numbers into their primes is one of them. In 1994, a mathematician named Peter Shor came up with an algorithm, a quantum algorithm, that could do just that. Since cryptography is based on multiplying large primes, it is hellishly difficult to factor these numbers into their component figures. Cryptography at the national security level would take all the computational power on the planet hundreds if not thousands of years to break code at that level.

The End of Cryptology

But harness Shor’s algorithm to a quantum computer and you “cheat the math” and cryptography as we know it is destroyed. So it’s not hard to guess which government intelligence agency got first in line for a D-Wave 2. The NSA is also known as the Puzzle Palace.

Quantum computers would also be very good at optimization, or coming up with the most effective solution to problems arising in complex systems, such as predicting the weather, or the financial markets, or the human body. It would transform medicine through radically altering, or optimizing, data from drug testing.

NASA is interested because of the huge amount of data gathered through radio and optical telescopes. A quantum computer could filter out all the noise and help us make sense of all the data we collect. It could aid us in understanding the universe. It could also help us in the search for intelligent, extraterrestrial life.

Working effectively with these complex systems, and the huge amount of data that needs to be crunched, is simply not possible no matter how many conventional computers one throws at the problem.

In fact there is hardly any field of human endeavor that would not receive a benefit from quantum computers. The more we use them, the more we will learn about what they are good at, about quantum theory itself, and about what to do with all the data we’re piling up at an ever-increasing pace.

Much of this data is generated by the smartphone revolution, which tracks our movements with GPS, monitors our heart rate, oxygen consumption, our shopping patterns, our social life. Add to this data from environmental tracking (weather, climate, ocean salinity and sea levels). Also include economic tracking (currency fluctuations, stocks, commodities), news events and their historical roots and associations.

Learning to Learn

Once we learn more about quantum computers’ capabilities, we’ll also be able to come up with more intelligent and complex questions, once the process has begun.

As discussed in my last column, about the Manhattan Project to achieve artificial intelligence, quantum computers could be the template upon which true AI is achieved. Conventional computers “think” sequentially, albeit quickly. But quantum computers, as do our brains, process huge amounts of data instantly. Thus they are further up the evolutionary ladder, by orders of magnitude, above classical computers.

D-Wave is just the first to market with what appears to be a true quantum computer. Their machines are being rigorously tested by Google and NASA, both of which are throwing increasingly complex problems at it. So far it has outpaced traditional computers at factoring large numbers by 36,000 times the speed of the fastest conventional computer. In other tests it has simply matched the speed of its binary counterparts, or has been slower in performance of the task.

What galls the scientific community is the fact that D-Wave appears to work at all. It was a completely private venture, it didn’t publish its research in scientific journals and it beat all government-funded research facilities by bringing a working model to market. If it isn’t in fact a true quantum computer, it fairly models how one will work.

There are many approaches to the architecture and structure of a quantum computer. Microsoft established the Station Q research group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2006. IBM, Northrup-Grumman and BBN Technologies have also invested heavily in research on quantum computers.

When Can I Get One?

Will quantum computers replace your PC anytime soon? Will its promise of amazing power be on your desktop in your lifetime? Not likely. It’s more probable that it will work as an adjunct to conventional computers and networks, running the specialized tasks it is best at, such as modeling certain chemicals and drugs, performing complex financial analyses, and looking for E.T. Most experts agree that it will be another 20 years before quantum computers begin to perform tasks that existing computers can’t do.

D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell is predicting a faster timetable however. And Google agrees. Although they admit that D-Wave’s own computer will not replace PC’s, it can and will be used by large enterprises such as financial services to calculate risk analysis, modeling and projections. It could also be used for optimization in supply chains, transportation and logistics.

But then nobody really knows what path to general use a true quantum computer will take. The theories behind the efforts to create one are proven. The general scientific community said that a quantum computer was 20 years in the future. Then D-Wave started selling them at “somewhere north” of $10 million apiece.

Yes I know that I barely mentioned the truly astounding and world-shaking nature of the specifics and implications of quantum physics, such as parallel universes and spatial non-locality, the proper term for spooky action at a distance. I am very interested in the subject, and am amazed at the structure of creation at the level of the very small.

I would recommend as a starting point Google’s video to YouTube called “Google and NASA’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab”. There is also high quality information available in Wikipedia, and several lectures by Richard Feynman, whom I will quote in closing.

“If you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics.”