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Quantum rewrites the rules of computing

Sharon Gaudin | March 19, 2014
NASA, Google testing D-Wave machine while debate rages over whether it's really quantum computing.

"We're still in the early stages," said Biswas, but added that testing is going well. "We are trying to see what it can do. It's not a turnkey situation. It's a very exotic field. It's like in the early days of computing when we had computers with vacuum tubes and card readers."

D-Wave's system at NASA may be the first commercially available quantum computer, but it's not the first quantum machine. Basic quantum computers have been built before.

In 2000, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory demonstrated a working 7-qubit system.

In 2011, Brownell said, D-Wave, to prove it was on the right track, built a quantum computer running 8 qubits. However, the company hasn't proved that its 512-qubit machine works as a quantum computer, and that's because, he said, it simply can't be proven.

"These are such complex systems they can't be modeled by all the computers in the world put together," Brownell said. "That will never be completely provable."

Paul Benioff, who is credited with being the first to apply the theories of quantum mechanics to computers in the early 1980s while working at the Argonne National Laboratory, is doubtful that D-Wave has built a true quantum computer.

"We're a long ways away," he told Computerworld. "It won't happen in my lifetime and I don't intend to die tomorrow."

Benioff says it could be 20 to 50 years before anyone is able to get a lot of qubits to work together.

"It's not hard to build [a qubit], but how do you build a whole lot of them and have one over here interact with one way over there?" he asked. "There are a lot of questions out there about whether they are full quantum computers. It could be a step there or it's an offshoot of the right way to go."

Iannacchione agrees that D-Wave's system is likely a step toward building a real quantum computer.

"They haven't demonstrated the ability to do these huge calculations," he said. "There's no clear evidence that what D-Wave is doing is faster than what a classical computer can do. If they really are creating a quantum computer, it should be hugely faster even if we don't understand what is going on under the hood."

That is what is making many people, in both physics and computer science, skeptical about D-Wave's machine. This is so new and out-of-the-box, that they're not even sure if a true quantum computer has been built.

And having a quantum computer won't be as easy as adding more racks to a company's data center.

A quantum computer has to be completely isolated from everything from radiation to light, heat and even vibrations. It also has to operate at 458 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.


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