D-Wave: quantum computing or quantum scam?

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on January 14, 2014

From The News Desk

Will Bourne, a contributing editor at Inc., has a smart piece on D-Wave, the world's first commercial quantum computer. Its creator, Geordie Rose, claims "computing speeds '100,000 times faster' than traditional computers, temperatures '150 times colder than interstellar space,' time spans longer 'than the age of the universe.'"

And, as Bourne wrote, "the potential is just as surreal."

Although many physicists doubt that a quantum computer would be all that useful except as a way to study quantum physics, D-Wave believes it would change the very definition of impossible, that the world's computing infrastructure would be transformed overnight, with a quantum cloud forming to handle some of our gnarliest computational challenges. Problems that have been unsolvable with current computers -- whether molecular modeling for drug development or 'optimization' problems routinely encountered by logistics-dependent companies like FedEx -- would suddenly give way; existing industries including software design, nanotech, and machine learning would be transformed, and massive new markets would grow up around them. In D-Wave's vision, a quantum computing age would seem as foreign in 2014 as today's digital age would to someone living under Herbert Hoover.
There's just one problem. It's not clear that it works, at least as advertised.

As Pando has covered, quantum computing is enormously complicated. Instead of relying on 1s and 0s, which is how classic computing functions, it is based on qubits (or quantum bits), which means they can hold more values simultaneously. That should, at least in theory, result in far faster, more powerful computing. It's not as easy as it sounds, though. With quantum physics, which looks at things on an atomic and subatomic scale, where nothing behaves it should, "apples don't fall from trees with a satisfying thump -- they appear in multiple trees at once, and on the ground, and everywhere in between."

Geordie Rose, with $130 million in venture capital behind him provided by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Jeff Bezos, In-Q-Tel (a CIA-sponsored investment firm), and Goldman Sachs, believes he could be the next Bill Gates. Instead, Bourne wonders if the mythic figure Rose may most resemble isn't Bill Gates but Icarus -- you know, the Ancient Greek figure who with wings made of feathers and held together by wax brushed off parental warnings about flying too close to the sun. His enthusiasm getting the best of him, he tried out a series of gravity-defying tricks that pushed him higher and higher until the wax melted, the feathers came loose and he plummeted to his death.

Questioning D-Wave's real accomplishments has become a cottage industry, with physicists and computer scientists worldwide debating whether its black box is a real quantum computer and whether it does -- or could ever do -- anything an ordinary computer can't. At one time, Rose could toss off such criticism as the carping of propellerheads. Not any more: With his $15 million machine now on the market, he has to prove that it can be useful on a commercial scale. Now it is becoming clear that mere determination is not enough, that even a fighter like Rose may be unable to overthrow the laws of physics.
If it works as advertised, however, this would be a major advancement. Otherwise, it could be like "cold fusion," an as-of-yet hypothetical kind of nuclear reaction at, or near, room temperature, and which could also have broad and powerful applications.

But no one, it seems, has gotten that to work, despite some well publicized scams. Maybe D-Wave, with several high profile customers like Google and Lockheed, has cracked this virtually impenetrable code. Or not. No one knows, and that's why this is such an interesting story.

[Disclosure: Will Bourne was once my editor at Fast Company magazine, where we worked on a number of feature stories together.]