30 generations of quantum computing machines have been made by D-Wave Systems Inc., the makers of the world’s first commercial quantum computers.
DFJ backed such projects as Skype and Hotmail, and started investing in D-Wave in 2003. Jurvetson, who now sits on D-Wave’s board, believes its machines will leave conventional supercomputers in the dust within five years. “Almost all the big winners in the high-tech field seem crazy at first, so the fact that this is an unusual technology right now is a big draw for us. Especially a commercial one like this that has the capability of being more powerful, more flexible and have much more longevity than any computer we’ve seen before.”
The company is currently fabricating 128-qubit chips, which they claim will be about 100 times faster than an off-the-shelf $5,000 conventional computer for solving certain tricky computing problems. But in order for these kinds of quantum machines to become exponentially faster than today’s conventional computers, they will need to scale their technology up to thousands or even millions of qubits. D-Wave plans to have a 1,000-qubit system operating by the end of 2009 that would bump the technology out of the R&D phase and into the real world – appealing to a variety of corporations, including Internet search engines, banks, investment firms and insurance brokers, as well as logistics, travel and pharmaceutical companies. A few dozen academics in robotics and bioscience, and a handful of corporations, including industry goliath Google Inc., are already using D-Wave’s quantum machines.
The four most promising [types of quantum computers] systems developed so far have used trapped ions, electrons in semiconductors, photons or superconductors. D-Wave chose to go the superconducting route: cooling superconducting metal – in D-Wave’s case, loops of mostly niobium – to nearly absolute zero to cause the quantum behaviour.
Meanwhile, D-Wave is facing its own qubit-related constraints issues, as the company’s objective to “go up to millions or tens of hundreds of millions of qubits” butts up against the physical restriction presented by chip size. According to Rose, even these thumbnail-sized qubits are quite large, and shrinking them makes it more difficult to couple them to other qubits and other necessary devices. D-Wave has scaled up through 30 generations of processors to get from 16 qubits to 128 with its newest chip, which the company will soon begin manufacturing in-house. “We can fit roughly 2,000 qubits on our current processor, which is about the limit of where we can go with the current design,” admits Rose. “After that’s achieved, we need to have some other method of going to larger numbers. So the next step in the redesign – or the evolution of the technology – is getting to millions of qubits.”
Unless, that is, D-Wave runs out of investor money first. “I’ve lived through many economic crises, so the next year could be tough for D-Wave,” admits Farris.
Corporate America and the IBMs of the world have said, ‘Everybody will be knocking on your door when you get to 500 qubits.’ But that might change in this economy.