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Quantum leap toward future of computing

Thursday - 2/27/2014, 4:15am  ET

d-wave processor (dwave)
Quantum computing is said to be 100,000 times than today's devices (D-Wave)

WASHINGTON -- Is Washington ready for quantum computing?

Executives with D-Wave - a Canadian company that says its groundbreaking, controversial computer is 100,000 times faster than today's devices - are meeting behind closed doors in and around the nation's capital.

"Quantum computers are a completely new kind of computer that uses quantum mechanics," says Vern Brownell, CEO of D-Wave, based in British Columbia, which has built what it calls the first commercial quantum computer.

"Quantum mechanics are what physicists believe explains the universe at its most detailed level, but it uses quantum mechanics opposed to classical mechanics," says Brownell.

Got it? Don't worry; many people don't.

Brownell and his team are visiting Washington for three days of meetings with government agencies that D-Wave isn't disclosing, explaining the power of the device and ways it might be used.

"A real type of application would be searching through genomic data, matching different types of drugs and seeing what their effects are for cancer treatment," says Brownell.

Some physicists and computer scientists have questioned whether what D- Wave has invented is truly a quantum computer, and whether its power-solving potential is as great as envisioned.

Quantum computing as an intelligence-gathering tool

Brownell says his company has built between 10 and 12 quantum computers.

Lockheed Martin was the company's first customer, housing the D-Wave One at the University of Southern California.

"We have another at NASA-Ames, that was installed as a collaboration between Google and NASA," says Brownell.

D-Wave says it is now working with a U.S. intelligence agency, but isn't specifying which one.

Current quantum computers take up a considerable amount of landscape.

"The machine consists of a very large, shielded room. It's a giant box that's 10 feet by 10 feet by 10 feet," says Brownell.

Inside the box is exotic refrigeration machinery to bring the temperature down near what scientists refer to as absolute zero - the lowest possible temperature, which is approximately minus 469 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Ultimately that's just to cool a chip that's the size of your fingernail," says Brownell.

D-Wave has developed a 512-qubit computer chip.

In traditional computers, the standard bit of information is binary - either 1 or 0.

In quantum computing, a quantum bit, or qubit, can be 1, 0, or both at the same time.

The future of quantum computing

In the same way traditional computers have shrunk from filling a room to fitting in a smartphone, Brownell expects quantum computers will get smaller, quickly.

"That will happen. We have a project under way to take that large room down to just three racks, which will fit very well in a data center," says Brownell.

In addition, Brownell intends to harness the power of the Cloud.

"We plan on implementing a whole host of quantum cloud services, so that any customer can access this and get the power of this computer remotely," says Brownell.

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