The Quantum Quest for a Revolutionary Computer

   < < Go Back
from TIME Magazine,

Quantum computing uses strange subatomic behavior to exponentially speed up processing. It could be a revolution, or it could be wishful thinking.

Burnaby, British Columbia, is the headquarters of a computer firm called D-Wave. Its flagship product, the D-Wave Two, of which there are five in existence, is a black box 10 ft. high. Inside is a cylindrical cooling apparatus containing a niobium computer chip that’s been chilled to around 20 millikelvins, which, in case you’re not used to measuring temperature in millikelvins, is about -459.6°F, almost 2° colder than the Boomerang Nebula. By comparison, interstellar space is about 80 times hotter.

The D-Wave Two is an unusual computer, and D-Wave is an unusual company. It’s small, just 114 people, and its location puts it well outside the swim of Silicon Valley. But its investors include the storied Menlo Park, Calif., venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which funded Skype and Tesla Motors. It’s also backed by famously prescient Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and an outfit called In-Q-Tel, better known as the high-tech investment arm of the CIA. Likewise, D-Wave has very few customers, but they’re blue-chip: they include the defense contractor Lockheed Martin; a computing lab that’s hosted by NASA and largely funded by Google; and a U.S. intelligence agency that D-Wave executives decline to name.

The reason D-Wave has so few customers is that it makes a new type of computer called a quantum computer that’s so radical and strange, people are still trying to figure out what it’s for and how to use it. It could represent an enormous new source of computing power–it has the potential to solve problems that would take conventional computers centuries, with revolutionary consequences for fields ranging from cryptography to nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals to artificial intelligence.

That’s the theory, anyway.

In a sense, quantum computing represents the marriage of two of the great scientific undertakings of the 20th century, quantum physics and digital computing.

Regular computers (or classical computers, as quantum snobs call them) work with information in the form of bits. Each bit can be either a 1 or a 0 at any one time. The same is true of any arbitrarily large collection of classical bits; this is pretty much the foundation of information theory and digital computing as we know them. Therefore, if you ask a classical computer a question, it has to proceed in an orderly, linear fashion to find an answer.

Now imagine a computer that operates under quantum rules. Thanks to the principle of superposition, its bits could be 1, or 0, or 1 and 0 at the same time.

In its superposed state, a quantum bit exists as two equally probable possibilities. According to one theory, at that moment it’s operating in two slightly different universes at the same time, one in which it’s 1, one in which it’s 0; the physicist David Deutsch once described quantum computing as “the first technology that allows useful tasks to be performed in collaboration between parallel universes.”

More From TIME Magazine: