d-wave's quantum computer

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Backstage of the digital revolution that is happening out front, a quiet revolution is gradually gathering pace: quantum computing. This topic is raising many questions and arousing quite some anxiety. People are now saying that in the coming decades, quantum computing could well bring about unprecedented change, taking our societies and the way we live into a new future. In actual fact this amazing machine does not really exist yet. Nevertheless, there are already quantum computers in existence that are able to process data and make calculations based on quantum bits (qubits) rather than the traditional binary digits used in the IT systems that are ubiquitous today.

D-Wave Systems, founded in 1999, is the first quantum computing company in the world to succeed in building a 28-qubit processor.  Since it was unveiled back in 2007, the company has been working on the (now imminent) launch of a new-generation 2000-qubit processor. The race for quantum supremacy is very much on. In his opening address to the Dublin Tech Summit on 17 April, D-Wave's President, Bo Ewald, outlined the potential of this new technology to revolutionize our world. While the underlying technical subject matter is not easy for most people to discuss as it requires advanced knowledge of maths and physics, it would nevertheless appear vital to be able to at least grasp the potential of this new approach and its capacity to accelerate innovation and overturn existing models.

quantum mechanics: atoms, particles and the void 

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Faster processing and optimization

For a number of years now, many scientists and some mighty digital players – with IBM and Google at the forefront – have been undertaking intensive research with the aim of developing computers that do not use classical computing methods but a new ingenious methodology based on quantum physics. Whereas a traditional 'bit' can store information in the form of either a zero or a 1, a 'qubit' is able to store a zero, a one, both zero and one simultaneously, or an infinite number of values in between – and can be in multiple states (i.e. store multiple values) at the same time. This 'superposition' effect means the computer will be able to perform a far greater number of operations in a much shorter time by making a huge number of calculations simultaneously. For example, a traditional computer takes four times as long as a quantum computer to carry out a complex calculation.

Qu'est ce que la mécanique quantique ?
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In practical terms, acceleration and optimization are the key words here.Acceleration, because if a computer can perform an increasing number of operations in a decreasing amount of time, this means that investigations, searches and projections can be speeded up and a far greater number of possible solutions can be tested. It's not hard to see the benefits this could bring in various fields of science and technological or process innovation. Joseph Schumpeter's Theory of Innovation posits that innovation is driven by research and development, and this in turn requires a huge amount of information. By enabling the testing of a large number of hypotheses simultaneously, the quantum computer promises to radically speed up information processing, experimentation and the acquisition of knowledge. This is why the imminent computing revolution is arousing excitement in some quarters and anxieties in others.

Secondly, optimization, because in a world that increasingly runs on data and data processing, we need systems able to process all that data very fast and very accurately – which is what quantum computers are intended for. 'Intended for', because in fact the quantum computer does not yet really exist. The prototypes in existence today are not designed for universal use; they focus exclusively on a single problem, i.e. the quantum computers available today can only perform a given task in a particular field – usually an optimization task involving for instance modeling and streamlining an industrial process. In this respect, quantum computers are very different from traditional computers, which have the advantage of being able to carry out a wide range of different tasks.

Zero and one: both full and empty

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With qubits, data becomes matter

The qubit is the new bit

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No-one needs reminding that traditional computing methods – and the computers on the market today – have helped to drive phenomenal progress in so many fields, from the self-driving car to artificial intelligence and from BigData to the Blockchain. So just imagine what one could do with four times the computing power. A whole world of possibilities opens up. However, the quantum computer has – for a number of reasons – not been designed for the general public. Firstly, because it is extremely complex to use and its functionality goes way beyond the average user’s needs or wishes. Although experts who specialize in this field dream one day developing a really universal quantum computer, it is quite unlikely that these machines will ever be seen in your home. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to actually produce and maintain qubits. 

The unique property of a qubit, superposition, means that it can store both 0and 1 values at the same time: this is what gives it its extra computing power. However, for technical reasons, quantum superposition only lasts for a certain amount of time. For a qubit to maintain its quantum properties it has to be contained in a macroscopic device at a very low temperature, close to absolute zero and it is almost impossible, given the cost and the complexity of the infrastructure required, to maintain the system at this temperature indefinitely. This is however an absolute necessity, as any increase in temperature, even a very small one, will erase the quantum properties of the qubit, which will then revert to being a simple 'bit'. Consequently, the machines built by D-Wave Systems are a sort of giant refrigerator designed to maintain the quantum nature of the informational ‘bits’ so as to maintain quantum processing. One might say that as the state and properties a qubit tend to change constantly, the information is, as it were, engraved in the matter.

The qubit wars

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Digital giants in a race

The potential for advances in the technology, products and services developed by the leading players in the digital and data fields is therefore likely to be crucial. Traditional computers and computing have already transformed the world into a digital space. Now quantum computing is set to increase the value of data still further, enabling optimization of products and services in all sectors and speeding up research and development. And, very often, time is money.The development of the quantum computer holds the potential for positive change all over the world, but – based on the superior speed of the quantum approach – perhaps with several times greater intensity than the original digital revolution. At all events, there is huge market potential here.

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Our world is becoming ever-more complex, with 2.5 exabytes of data produced every day – the equivalent of close to ninety years of HD video. An entire sophisticated economy has been built up around data. The transition to digital tools and channels means that all areas of our society – from communities to companies, right down to the individual level – are now centered on data and data processing. And the data that is produced and gathered is then aggregated, interpreted and disseminated at an increasing speed, which actually exceeds the capabilities of the computing technology currently available. This is why the imminent advent of quantum computers is of such significance and the potential rewards so great. Whoever masters data will be able to exert a huge impact – whether economically, socially or politically.

With this in mind, companies such as IBM, Intel, Google and Microsoft, plus many governments around the world, have thrown themselves headlong into quantum computing in a bid to achieve 'quantum supremacy'. IBM has already succeeded in developing a 50-qubit system able to maintain a quantum state for 90 microseconds, which is the current record. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Intel unveiled a 49-qubit processor. More recently, Google announced that it had succeeded in creating a processor which is close to achieving 'quantum supremacy', claiming it to be 100,000times more powerful than a traditional processor. So we may now bew itnessing the start of a new round of 'digital wars' – understandably so, given that quantum computers could enable the exponential development of artificial intelligence and the creation of new algorithms that may change the face of the world.

By Théo Roux
Journaliste