In February of 2007, D-Wave Systems, of Burnaby, Canada, successfully demonstrated the world’s first quantum computer, to much fanfare. Known as Orion, this 16-qubit adiabatic quantum computer is designed to be scaled up to a 1024-qubit model by mid-2008 that can very quickly compute a very specific sort of problem using somewhat different properties of quantum mechanics (QM) than other researchers have been perusing. Using a sort of quantum shotgun approach, these machines are designed to compute problems that require a very large number of outcomes to be tried and something of a general trend computed.
One of the major physical problems with bringing a quantum computer to market is the complicated apparatus that are often involved in lab settings. Firstly, D-wave solved the immediate problem by focusing on a less precise aspect of QM that they exploit, called tunneling. Such applications, while they still require a great deal of equipment, are less fiddly and massive than their second-generation counterparts.
Regardless, the properties of quantum tunneling allows Orion to tackle a limited type of NP-complete problems – a particularly tedious type problem first proposed by Stephen Cook in 1971. In this application, tunneling is used to utilize an aspect of QM that operates (in a limited way) outside linear time and space to perform a very particular sort of decision problem.
Secondly, they used a different sort of business model, allowing for a single machine to run at company headquarters, running problems for clients who essentially rent time on a still rather delicate set-up that includes a processor core super-cooled with liquid helium to –269C.
The D-wave model – hardware and algorithms – are based upon the tunneling property of QM. Tunneling, or the ability of sufficiently energetic or small particles to do what seems impossible by the classical physics that govern the macro world we live in.
Tunneling has been known as the mechanism behind alpha decay of radioactive particles since the 1920s. The properties of tunneling have also played a part in the development of semi-conductors such as several kinds of specialized diodes used in reverse bias applications.
More recently, it has been used in microscopy since the 1980s when Ernst Ruska, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer won a Nobel Prize for the groundwork and design that led to the first operational devices. In the 1990s, researchers were able to move individual atoms around using such devices.
Current research has identified quantum tunnelling as the mechanism that allows the fast enzymatic reactions responsible for the “magic” part of photosynthesis – making quantum-dot solar panels that much closer to a reality.
This very first generation of quantum computers being produced by D-wave is being marketed to research facilities that compute problems such as those presented by climate modeling or protein fold calculations. Even database queries should be speeded up by Orion’s decedents.
Such problems with many variables have been known to stymie “traditional” super-computers when they reach a high enough level of complexity. While distributed networks offer the ability to vastly increase parallel computing functionality at a somewhat slower than optimal speed, quantum-computers will shortly offer, not unlimited parallelism, but a uniquely zippy way of doing particular types of problems that have hereto required very long computational cycles, as to be practically unsolvable.
So, to generally rate this generation of computers, as first demonstrated in February:
The folks at D-wave Systems know that, though. Orion is a baby step and a fabulous one, at that.
The upcoming second-generation of quantum computers, which are currently confined to physics labs, hope to employ the mechanism of particle entanglement for processing. US Patents have already been taken out on entanglement storage that promises instantaneous transfer anywhere in the universe, like sub-space communications or teleportation on Star Trek, eventually.
One of the reasons governments have been heavily investing in quantum computing is the possibility that one that exploits the entanglement effect could someday break what is currently the strongest available encryption codes for online security, with ease. Departments of defense worldwide are interested and heavily involved in breakthrough research in this aspect of quantum computing. However, physical constraints will keep these machines in the lab a bit longer.
But, as of 2007, the first leap has been made.