D-Wave

Did you ever wish you could be two things simultaneously? Well, in the fascinating, far-out world of quantum mechanics that's possible. For years, scientists have been trying to harness that property to build more powerful machines that could be 100 million times faster than what we currently use. That would change many aspects of our lives, from how we keep our data safe from snoops to how well virtual assistants could get to know us and serve our needs.

Many experts are skeptical that the companies working on this trippy area of science have made promising gains. But this week, we got some very exciting news: Google and NASA offered up evidence that their quantum machine might actually work.

So you may be wondering, what the heck is a quantum computer?

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Quantum computers store information in so-called qubits, or quantum bits. Unlike the bits that regular computers crunch, whose state can switch from 1 to 0, qubits exists as 1 and a 0. Trippy, right? That's the part of the magic sauce that makes a quantum computer revolutionary. But there's more: another far-out quantum property called entanglement.

Entanglement allows particles to have identical physical properties across space and maybe time. Einstein called it "spooky action at a distance." (If you're a fan of Star Trek, you're surely familiar with teleportation. Teleportation is only possible because of entanglement.) A quantum computer won't teleport you, but it would make computers much more efficient.

As expert Ivan Deutsch told Quanta Magazine:

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Each qubit can be entangled with the other qubits in the machine. The intertwining of quantum “states” exponentially increases the number of 0s and 1s that can be simultaneously processed by an array of qubits. Machines that can harness the power of quantum logic can deal with exponentially greater levels of complexity than the most powerful classical computer. Problems that would take a state-of-the-art classical computer the age of our universe to solve, can, in theory, be solved by a universal quantum computer in hours.

Awesome right? That would make the fast computer on your lap or the ones in giant data centers where Google stores your photos and documents look like snails. That's why government agencies and big tech companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM are interested in the things.

Unfortunately, as Deustch says, this is also what makes quantum computers so tricky to use. That state of entanglement is really easy to disrupt. Once that happens, it goes caput. No bueno.

He puts it more eloquently: "From the beginning, it has not been clear whether the exponential speed up provided by a quantum computer would be cancelled out by the exponential complexity needed to protect the system from crashing."

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So what's all the recent fuss about?

At an event at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, Google execs discussed new research that lends some proof the quantum computer Google and NASA share might be actually harnessing quantum physics to compute.

The heart of the quantum computer.
Dominic Walliman

During the event, which was also tied to a paper the search giant posted online Monday, Google showed that its quantum machine, made by a Canada-based company called D-Wave Systems, could outperform standard computers on some tasks, with a speedup of 100 million in some cases! (The computer has more than 1,000 qubits, according to the company.)

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For instance, the speedy quantum computer solved one tricky problem in one second. It would have taken the run-of-the-mill computer 10,000 years.

In the tech world, it's all about speed. The faster computers can analyze data, the faster (and better) companies can serve us. For AI, this kind of speed-up could mean that the models companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM train to do machine translation, voice recognition, and image classification could be trained much, much faster. That would be a huge financial boon.

So how close are we to a quantum-computerized future?

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While there's definitely enthusiasm around these findings, they're by no means conclusive. The big caveat here is that the conventional computer was using code similar to the one running on the D-Wave. Researchers were aware of a different program that could have exploited a flaw in the D-Wave, and potentially helped it to win.

Among scientists there's been some controversy about whether the computer that Google and NASA are sharing is, in fact, a full-on quantum machine. (NASA and Google aren't the only organizations that have bought D-Waves. Lockheed Martin and USC also have these refrigerator-looking contraptions.)

The end-game is to develop what's called a universal quantum computer, one that can implement any algorithm fed to it. As of 2013, it was unclear whether the D-Wave computer was that. As University of Maryland Frank Gaitan, who worked on that test, told WIRED, the D-Wave machine “uses some kind of quantum effect that solves some kind of problems” and is really good at solving optimization problems. But it was still unclear whether it was a universal quantum computer.

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For the likes of Google, that might not matter, since the kinds of things they might want to do with it are optimization problems. At its core, that's what AI is.

Google isn't yet using using the technology to power any of its applications, but if they get them to work the way they're hoping, it probably will. It's hired top players in the quantum computing world in recent years. The search giant has a quantum computing group focused on AI in 2013.

“It is a truly disruptive technology that could change how we do everything,” said Rupak Biswas, director of exploration technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

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Or not, if they can't get it to work. Stay tuned.

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.