D-Wave's supposed quantum computers have attracted plenty of skepticism alongside some serious interest from huge corporations such as Google and Lockheed Martin. Now recent testing has shown that D-Wave's machine can indeed beat standard computers head-to-head in solving certain problems.
The D-Wave computer performed up to 3600 times faster than a high-performance machine running IBM software while solving an optimization problem, according to the New York Times. D-Wave's machine only proved slightly faster than the standard computing on two other optimization problem tests, but the results still seem encouraging for the company's future prospects.
“Ours is the first paper to my knowledge that compares the quantum approach to conventional methods using the same set of problems,” Catherine McGeoch, the Beitzel professor in technology and society at Amherst College in Massachusetts, says in a press release.
McGeoch, a founder of "experimental algorithmics" in computer science, was enlisted by D-Wave as an outside consultant to devise tests for comparing the company's machines with conventional computers. She plans to present a co-authored paper on the test results at the 2013 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Conference on Computing Frontiers in Ischia, Italy on May 15.
The latest success of D-Wave's computer does not mean that it or quantum computers in general will replace consumer laptops anytime soon. Instead, D-Wave's machine has proven good at tackling specific optimization problems with one best solution—puzzles similar to the "traveling salesperson" problem that asks for the shortest possible route to visit a list of cities exactly once before returning to the original city.
That means D-Wave's machine and quantum computers could prove particularly helpful in tackling problems involving shipping logistics for packages or goods, flight scheduling for airlines, or DNA analysis, says McGeoch, adding:
"There are degrees of what it can do. If you want it to solve the exact problem it’s built to solve, at the problem sizes I tested, it’s thousands of times faster than anything I’m aware of. If you want it to solve more general problems of that size, I would say it competes—it does as well as some of the best things I’ve looked at. At this point it’s merely above average but shows a promising scaling trajectory."
McGeoch still held off on definitively saying whether D-Wave's machine is truly a quantum computer or not. But D-Wave recently received additional validation for its quantum computing claim from a group of independent researchers. Nature News reports that the group compared a D-Wave machine's performance with simulations of quantum versus classical computing, and found that the D-Wave device matched up well with the quantum computing simulation.
Further testing may eventually vindicate D-Wave's approach despite the early torrent of skepticism (IEEE Spectrum labeled the company a technology "loser" in 2010). D-Wave has already sold commercial versions of its computers to companies such as U.S. defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
Geordie Rose, CTO for D-Wave, has suggested that the company's patent portfolio in this area of quantum computing should ensure that it won't see serious competitors for at least another 15 years. But as the field of quantum computing continues to look more and more promising, D-Wave surely won’t have the field all to itself forever.
Photo: D-Wave Systems
Correction: Amherst College is in Massachusetts, not Maryland as stated originally
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.