Quantum computing company D-Wave Systems has raised $US30 million CAD ($28 million USD) to build out the software side of its business.
D-Wave Systems is based in Burnaby, British Columbia, and in May 2011 announced its D-Wave One computer, deemed “the world’s first commercially available quantum computer.” It had 128 qubits, or quantum bits, notionally a way of gauging its performance. The company’s most recent efforts have yielded 512-qubit chips for doing incredibly complex maths accurately and speedily.
D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell told us that the company’s existing investors “gave [the company] complete support, going beyond and upping percentage of ownership. The mix of old and new investors came up with a sum that will largely go to the software side in order to make this technology more usable for more people. No PhD. required.”
The company will of course continue to grow its processor development and make investments in the underlying technology that facilitates its business. Mr. Brownell was kind enough to take some time for
BUSINESS INSIDER: When acquaintances ask you what a quantum computer is, what do you tell them?
VERN BROWNELL: I’m still struggling with coming up with a good explanation. It’s a computer that uses quantum mechanics to do calculations. Everyone agrees that quantum mechanics, as discovered in the early 20th century, are the most fundamental laws of the universe.
In the 1980s and 1990s, scientists conjectured you could build a computer to tap into quantum mechanical principles. It would have unprecedented speed over classical computing and could solve problems that classical computers can not. We’re happy to be the first to do it.
BI: How will quantum computing matter to the everyday consumer?
VB: All computing is migrating to cloud access. We’ll be accessing quantum resources remotely though ubiquitous cloud-type services the same way that one might access classical resources through Amazon Web Services. Game developers might develop certain aspects of a game using it. It will give you the opportunity to use what’s right for the task you’re trying to accomplish.
The nice thing about this approach is that not everyone needs to buy a system to have access.
BI: Why does quantum computing and other quantum technology sound like magic to us?
VB: Even the greatest minds have said that quantum mechanics is not something that’s easily understood, or even understandable at all. Richard Feynman famously said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
If you think about the quantum mechanical properties inside the computer, you have the concept of superposition, in which quantum bits can be zeroes, ones, or both at once. This is not to say that half the time it’s a zero and the other half the time it’s a one. They are really in two states at the same time. What does that mean? We don’t have the language for it, but these bits are in two states at the same time. It’s not well understood, but there are lots of things we don’t understand yet and still use. This is just the latest example.
BI: What are the potential implications of quantum computing with respect artificial intelligence?
VB: One of our largest areas of exploration is in machine learning. You might think of it as AI 2.0. Many machine learning techniques involve training algorithms to do a particular task. Google tried to detect a car in an image. If you sit down as a programmer to try to do that, it’s quite difficult. You know a car has four wheels and so on, but how do you program that? You can show the computer a million pictures with cars in it, a million without, and then have it figure out its own notion of a car. It can be as — or more — effective than our own notion.
BI: Is it fair to say that quantum computing could change the tech landscape as severely as personal computing did in the late 1970s?
VB: Computers used to be programmed in complex assembly language. Then Bill Gates and Paul Allen introduced the first Basic interpreter, and that was it. Right now I think we’re at the dawn of the quantum computing age, to extent that we’re at that early stage where things start taking shape.
Every 2 years we’re quadrupling the number of qubits (quantum bits inside a processor). We made the decision that we would only attempt this if we could build it with semiconductor manufacturing techniques. All other quantum computing efforts around the world are — no disrespect — lab experiments. They’re not built with manufacturing in mind. This is what’s allowed us to scale to the semiconductor environment today.
If you plot our progress since 2004 — we started in 1999, but the first 5 years were exploratory — iteratively we’ve been building larger and larger processors, doubling the number qubits in our processors every year. We’ve been able to do this because we use semiconductor manufacturing technology. It sounds obvious in retrospect, but no one else is doing it.