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D-Wave Claims Quantum Computer Breakthrough

D-Wave Claims Quantum Computer Breakthrough

Canadian company D-Wave Systems this week demonstrated Orion, a device the company calls the world's first commercially viable quantum computer. D-Wave has not presented many details of the computer for review by the scientific community, but if the Orion really has brought quantum computing to life, the results could be a tremendous -- though possibly painful -- leap forward.

By Chris Maxcer
02/16/07 8:23 AM PT

In a move that could signal a massive leap forward in unlocking some of the most complex mysteries of our world, D-Wave Systems has demonstrated what it called the world's first commercially viable quantum computer.

The theories behind quantum computing have been around for decades, and the first real-world delivery of quantum computing was expected to take decades more. D-Wave, however, demonstrated a functioning prototype quantum computer in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday at the Computer History Museum.

The small Vancouver, Canada-based company plans to deliver field-deployable systems as early as 2008.

Quantum's Qubits

A quantum computer is similar to a supercomputer in that it's designed to handle massive computations of very complex problems -- but that's where the similarity ends.

Traditional computing is based on the manipulation of bits, which are always read as either a 0 or a 1. Quantum computing is based on a qubit, which can be a 0, 1, or both at the same time. While that's a confusing enough concept on its own, it comes from quantum mechanics, where subatomic particles can persist in two or more states at once.

Theoretically, qubits are the keys that let quantum computers have the potential to make billions of calculations exponentially faster than traditional computers.

Small Size

Right now, D-Wave's Orion system only contains 16 qubits, which means it's far less "powerful" than traditional computers. However, the company plans to introduce a 512-qubit processor, followed by a 1,024-qubit processor in 2008.

If D-Wave is successful, Orion will be able to solve what are known as "NP-complete" problems, which are problems where the sheer volume of complex data and variables prevent digital computers from generating answers, the company said. For example, Orion could be able to precisely model complex molecules, which in turn could jump start nanotechnology.

In order to be useful, however, D-Wave needs software applications that can take advantage of quantum computing. For that reason, D-Wave plans to offer free access later this year to one of its Orion systems to people who want to either develop or port applications to it. Plus, the company is actively looking for business partners.

Real Deal?

Because Orion must be kept refrigerated and isolated from outside influences that could disrupt its computations, the company only remotely accessed the system in its demonstration. Likewise, D-Wave hasn't proven Orion's exact nature to the scientific community, but may release details for scientific peer review. At that point, scientists can argue over the finer points of quantum mechanics and if Orion is truly a "quantum computer."

Regardless of scientific names and labels, what if it works? What will it mean for the current IT world?

"Quantum computing was supposed to be decades into the future," Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. "The problem for IT is that Quantum level processing is capable of breaking virtually every level of encryption currently used by shear force, and it is a game changer in terms of total processing power. "

Basically, this means quantum computing will likely have the ability to crack every password currently used in the modern IT landscape. While our computer-based secrets are safe for now, they might not be in a few years, which may require a massive hardware change in a 6- to 10-year time frame.

"In short, this could predict one of the most disruptive changes we have seen since the PC hit the IT space," Enderle noted. "It will happen faster, and it will be a lot more painful."


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