by Brian Orlotti
|D-Wave co-founder Geordie Rose with one of the firm’s quantum computers. Photo c/o D-Wave.
On May 16th, Burnaby, BC based D-Wave Systems (who claim to be the world’s first commercial quantum computer maker) announced it will install a new 512-qubit D-Wave Two quantum computer at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California next fall. This machine will be part of the newly-formed Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab, a collaboration between Google, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and NASA.
The new lab will focus on areas such as machine learning — building computers able to sort and analyse data based on previous experience. This would make quantum computers very useful for making advances in areas like language translation, web searches and voice recognition---areas that require creativity as well as horsepower.
In conventional computers, transistors manipulate electrons that are used to represent binary bits (1’s and 0’s). In contrast, quantum computers read the spin positions of photons (called polarization) used to represent quantum bits (or qubits). A key difference between conventional and quantum computing is that while binary bits can only be either a one or zero, qubits can be both simultaneously. This phenomenon (called superposition) is what gives quantum computers their super-fast processing power.
Quantum computers are unlike conventional computers that can be programmed to work through any type of problem. They specialize in solving "optimization problems," where a number of criteria all fight to be met at the same time. An example of this would be trying to find the lowest-energy fold for a protein, in which various amino acids attract or repel each other differently. Scientists have found that they can frame questions in machine-learning research as optimisation problems.
Predictably, D-Wave has faced skepticism that its computers actually operate on the quantum level or are faster than conventional computers. To address these concerns, D-Wave hired an outside expert, computer science professor Catherine McGeoch of Amherst College in Massachusetts, to test the D-Wave Two.
|Professor Catherine McGeoch. the Beitzel Professor in Technology and Society (Computer Science) at Amherst College.
McGeoch compared a 439-qubit version of the D-Wave Two to a commercial machine from IBM designed to solve "optimization" type problems. The IBM machine found an answer to the given problem in 30 minutes. McGeoch found that the D-Wave reached the answer in a half-second, about 3,600 times faster. On other types of problems, the D-Wave computer was slowed down by having to use a conventional front-end computer to "translate" them for its quantum CPU. In these instances, the D-Wave Two was about as fast as conventional computers.
McGeoch presented her findings in a peer-reviewed paper at the International Conference on Computing Frontiers in Ischia, Italy last May.
D-Wave’s machine was given a further boost by a team of scientists at the University of Southern California. This team performed their own test on their recently-purchased D-Wave Two and confirmed that it really does operate at the quantum level.
Quantum computing holds the promise of revolutionizing many diverse fields, but there are those who are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of machines having even a limited form of intelligence. Various voices on the internet conjure dark visions of governments granted god-like powers of oppression and brutality via quantum computing and artificial intelligence. These voices claim that governments will able to read all our communications and brutalize us with legions of intelligent, armed Terminator-esque robots.
|Joseph Goebbels as portrayed by Ulrich Matthas in the 2004 film Der Untergang.
Setting aside the fact that these are extreme extrapolations of what quantum computing may do, they ignore a key element…humans.
Governments certainly read our communications, but are hardly omniscient. Osama Bin Laden evaded US electronic surveillance for 10 years by simply bypassing electronic communications altogether, tracked down in the end via traditional means. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden help keep the public informed on what their governments are up to.
In Oliver Hirschbiegel’s brilliant 2004 film "Der Untergang" there is a cruel but telling outburst from Joseph Goebbels when he is criticized for the Nazi regime’s callousness towards its own citizens during the Battle of Berlin:
I feel no sympathy. I repeat, I feel *NO* sympathy! The German people chose their fate. That may surprise some people. Don't fool yourself. We didn't force the German people. They gave us a mandate, and now their little throats are being cut!It is our collective responsibility as citizens to make sure that the dark future prophesied by some does not come to pass.