The $70-million computer Geordie Rose built for D-Wave might solve the universe's problems. Or be totally useless.
I’m standing in front of a $70-million (and counting) machine named Dragon, which one day could be able to solve problems that would stymie even a universe-sized conventional computer slogging away for millennia. Or it could turn out to be less useful than the eight-meg laptop collecting dust in my storage space. Such is the bizarro world of quantum computing. Dragon lives on the main floor of a nondescript office park in Burnaby, in the shadow of the gigantic western headquarters of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd. It’s actually one of 30 generations of quantum computing machines owned by D-Wave Systems Inc., the makers of the world’s first commercial quantum computers. Special fridges can cool the hardware to temperatures 250 times colder than interstellar space (so that the computer chips can act as superconductors), but figuring out exactly what these machines are actually doing is a tall order, and a hotly contested one at that – at least among quantum physicists and computer scientists.
In theory, a quantum computer could solve problems exponentially faster than a classic computer. In an eye’s blink, it could break cryptographic codes used to protect top-secret banking or military databases. Or build a teleportation machine. Or unlock the secrets of biology by mimicking the behaviour of even the smallest molecules, which would be a breakthrough for biosciences and the pharmaceutical industry. It could also apply to robotics or miniaturizing technologies or be used to study the quirky, mind-bending laws of quantum mechanics, which could turn our understanding of life as we know it on its head. As the world demands ever-more powerful computers and ever-more tiny devices, hitting the upper limits of conventional computing power has become a real threat. Keeping increasingly muscular chips cool while also hogging less power is a challenge, which makes the lure of quantum computing even more appealing. No wonder the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense), the National Security Agency, the U.S. Army, academic groups and corporations such as IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Development Co. LP have been trying to build a quantum computer these past 15 years. But the so-called race perhaps fits a tortoise-hare analogy. These groups have invested about a billion dollars into developing their own quantum machines, but so far they’ve only made baby steps forward, with many scientists believing we’re at least a decade or two away from designing a useful quantum computer rivalling today’s fastest silicon-based computers. D-Wave, which seemingly came out of nowhere in 2007 with a machine that allegedly far outpaced anything else developed in test labs, aims to do it within years. The question is, in today’s uncertain financial climate, will D-Wave run out of money before its quantum machines are ready for prime time? The scientific community has remained skeptical since D-Wave debuted its first machine in 2007 at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, but that hasn’t stopped several high-tech investors and Canadian government groups from sinking more than $70 million into D-Wave since it launched in 1999, including over $22 million in 2008 alone. “I’ve always been drawn to crazy, wacky technologies,” says Steve Jurvetson of U.S. venture capitalist firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), which manages a $6-billion portfolio of emerging technologies. DFJ backed such projects as Skype and Hotmail, and started investing in D-Wave in 2003. Jurvetson, who now sits on D-Wave’s board, believes its machines will leave conventional supercomputers in the dust within five years. “Almost all the big winners in the high-tech field seem crazy at first, so the fact that this is an unusual technology right now is a big draw for us. Especially a commercial one like this that has the capability of being more powerful, more flexible and have much more longevity than any computer we’ve seen before.”