D-Wave Systems, a Vancouver (Canada) area company gets one step closer to quantum computing

It takes a great deal of nerve to found a startup company for any emerging technology; I’m not sure what it takes to found a startup company that produces quantum computers.

D-Wave Systems: the quantum computing company (based in the Vancouver area) recently announced they were able to employ an 84-qubit calculation in a demonstration calculating what Dexter Johnson at the Nanoclast blog for the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) called ‘notoriously difficult’ Ramsey numbers.

Here’s a brief description of the demonstration (excerpted from the Jan. 12, 2012 article by Bob Yirka for phsyorg.com),

In the research at D-Wave, those involved worked to run a just recently discovered quantum algorithm on an actual quantum computer; in this case, to solve for a two-color Ramsey number, R(m,2), where m= 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, also known as the “Party Problem” because it’s use can be explained by posing a problem experienced by many party planners, i.e. how to invite the minimum number of guests where one group knows a certain number of others, and another group doesn’t, forcing just the right amount of mingling. Because increasing the number of different kinds of guests increases the difficulty of finding the answer, modern computers aren’t able to find R(5,5) much less anything higher. …

Quantum algorithms take advantage of such facilities [ability to take advantage of quantum mechanics capabilities which allow superconducting circuits to recognize 1 or 0 as current traveling in opposite directions or the existence of both states simultaneously] and allow for the execution of “instructions” far faster than conventional computers ever could. In the demonstration by the D-Wave team, the computer solved for a R(8,2) Ramsey number in just 270 milliseconds using 84 qubits, though just 28 of them were used in actual computation as the rest were delegated to correcting errors. Also, for those that are curious, the answer is 8.

While Yirka goes on to applaud the accomplishment, he notes that it may not be very useful. I think that’s always an issue with the early stages of an emerging technology; it may not prove to have any practical applications now or in the future.

Dexter in his Jan. 12, 2012 blog posting about D-Wave Systems and their recent announcement speaks as someone with lengthy experience dealing with emerging technologies (he provides a little history first [I have removed links from the excerpt, please see the posting for those]),

After erring on the side of caution—if not doubt—when IEEE Spectrum [magazine] cited D-Wave Systems as one of its “Big Losers” two years ago,  it seems that there was a reversal of opinion within this publication back in June of last year when Spectrum covered D-Wave’s first big sale of a quantum computer with an article and then a podcast interview of the company’s CTO.

In the job of covering nanotechnology, one develops—sometimes—a bit more hopeful perspective on the potential of emerging technologies. Basic research that may lead to applications such as quantum computers get more easily pushed up in the development cycle than perhaps they should. So, I have been following the developments of D-Wave for at least the last seven years with a bit more credence than Spectrum had offered the company earlier.

While it may seem that D-Wave is on irreversible upward technological slope, one problem indicated … is that capital may be beginning to dry up.

If so, it would seem almost ironic that after years of not selling anything and attracting a lot of capital, D-Wave would make a $10-million sale and then not be able to get any more funding.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview that Brian Wang had with Geordie Rose, D-Wave’s Chief Technical Officer, for The Next Big Future blog (mentioned in Dexter’s piece) which brings the conundrum Dexter notes into high relief (from Wang’s Dec. 29, 2011 post),

The next 18 months will be a critical period for Dwave systems [sic]. Raising private money has become far more difficult in the current economic conditions. If Dwave were profitable, then they could IPO. If Dwave were not able to become profitable and IPO and could not raise private capital, then there would be the risk of having to shutdown.

According to Wang’s post, D-Wave managed the feat with the Ramsey number two years ago. There was no mention of what they are currently managing to do with their quantum computer.

This is the piece I mentioned yesterday (Jan. 18, 2012) in my posting about the recently released report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2012, from the US National Science Board (NSB) in the context of the government initiative, Startup America, and what I thought was a failure to address the issue of a startup trying to become profitable.

ETA Jan. 22, 2012: Dexter Johnson, Nanoclast blog at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) mentions the problem in a different context of a recent US initiative to support startup companies through a public/private partnership consortium called the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), from his Jan. 20, 2012 posting,

My concern is that a small company that has spun itself out from a university, developed some advanced prototypes, lined up their market, and picked their management group still need by some estimates somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 to $30 million to scale up to being an industrial manufacturer of a product.

Dexter’s concern is that AMP funds available for disbursement will only support a limited number of companies as they scale up.

This contrasts with the Canadian situation where it almost none of our smaller companies can get sufficient funds to scale up when they most need it, e.g., D-Wave System’s current situation.


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