About a year from now, banks, pharmaceutical companies and other large institutions will be able to rent time on a computer that calculates by studying the behavior of a niobium atom, according to D-Wave Systems.
The Canadian company on Tuesday gave a public demonstration of Orion, its quantum computer, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. D-Wave said it is going to try to sell computing services to corporate customers in the first quarter of 2008.
Quantum computers, which researchers have experimented with for years but which haven't yet existed outside of the laboratory, are radically different than today's electronic computers. D-Wave's computer is based around a silicon chip that houses 16 "qubits," the equivalent of a storage bit in a conventional computer, connected to each other. Each qubit consists of dots of the element niobium surrounded by coils of wire.
When electrical current comes down the wire, magnetic fields are generated, which, in turn, causes the change in the state of the qubit. Because scientists understand how niobium will react to magnetic fields and calculate the exact pattern and timing of the magnetic fields created, the pattern of changes exhibited by the niobium can then be translated into an answer that humans can understand.
"The qubits behave according to a certain set of rules," said founder and Chief Technology Officer Geordie Rose, who likened quantum computing to trying to decipher the language of atoms. "Quantum computing is the translation of those laws into a format that we can take."
Ultimately, D-Wave's computer is an analog computer, according to Alexey Andreev, a venture capitalist at Harris & Harris and an investor in D-Wave. Answers to programs run on the computer come in the form of a physical simulation. Answers to problems in digital computers are essentially mathematical solutions.
Because of its inherent properties, D-Wave's computer is optimized for running complex and oftentimes consuming simulations--for example, what happens when different variables are changed in an ornate financial model, or how different proteins interact with various synthetic, simulated pharmaceuticals. The system also could be used for nonscientific research such as searching patent databases for matches and overlap of intellectual property.
"We view these machines as probability distribution generators," Rose said. "We want to build an actual physical embodiment of a hard math problem."
Right now, Orion is a "proof of concept," a demonstration of what the final product could look like. At the demonstration, Rose had the system come up with answers to Sudoku problems and, in another demo, seek out similar molecules to the active ingredient in the drug Prilosec in a chemical database. The computer found several molecules that shared similar structural elements with Prilosec, but the molecule that matched it closest was the active ingredient in another drug called Nexium. Plucking out Nexium demonstrated the system's accuracy, the company said. Nexium is actually a mirror image of the molecule in Prilosec that AstraZeneca invented to extend its patents.
In another example, he ran a seating chart program where each guest had particular seating requirements. (Cleopatra could not sit next to meat eaters. Genghis Khan eats meat, and so on.) The system came up with a seating plan with a minimum number of violations of protocol.
The computer itself--which is cooled down to 4 millikelvin (or nearly minus 273.15 degrees Celsius) with liquid helium--was actually in Canada. Attendees only saw the results on a screen. Still, it was the largest demonstration of a quantum computer ever, Rose said.
By the end of the year, however, D-Wave will have a 32-qubit system. It plans to begin to rent out time on its computers to corporate customers in the first quarter of next year, said CEO Herb Martin. Customer won't have to learn special programming techniques or other tricks to take advantage of the service; sending a problem to D-Wave will be similar to outsourcing it to any other company. Later, D-Wave may lease or sell computers, Martin added.
By the second quarter of 2008, the company plans to have a 512-qubit system, and a 1,024-qubit system is expected by the end of that year.
Quantum computers, Martin emphasized, will not displace digital computers. Instead, they will serve as co-processors for large problems.
But is there a market for renting computing cycles? Sun Microsystems a few years ago opened up a server farm for hire for chemical and pharmaceutical companies. It has found few takers.
D-Wave's appeal differs in that its computer will be able to solve much larger problems than companies are currently able to tackle, said Steve Jurvetson, a partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson and an investor in D-Wave. Many medical outfits actually limit the scope of their research to fit the existing computational abilities. D-Wave has 100 patent applications filed, and 35 have been granted.
However, how larger systems will behave remains unknown, Rose said. D-Wave has engineered its chip so that the qubits are insulated from noise and other factors, and he has confidence that the number of qubits can be increased, "but we could be wrong," he said.
Another distinct advantage that the computer will have comes in energy consumption. Niobium is a superconductor and, thus, does not radiate heat. The chip itself requires only a few nanowatts.
The refrigeration unit consumes the most power at 20 kilowatts, which is still small compared with most server farms. Expanding the number of qubits on the chip will not require massive increases of refrigeration, Rose added.
Even with the explanations, quantum concepts can be a little tough to digest. Rose reminded the audience that humans consist of atoms that first appeared in a supernova billions of years ago. Trying to understand those atomic interactions that lead up to the present is at the heart of quantum computing.
"When I went to school, they didn't teach quantum mechanics," Martin said. "Newton was my boy."