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QUANTUM2-articleInlineThe long-sought quantum computer, a machine potentially far ahead of today’s best supercomputers, is almost as hard to define as it is to build. For at least a few particular uses, however, the unusual computer made by D-Wave Systems now seems to be very fast indeed.

Next week a professor at Amherst College will present her findings about the performance of the D-Wave machine, which its makers say makes use of such unusual properties of quantum physics as a particle’s ability to move in one direction and its opposite at the same time.

Professor Catherine C. McGeoch fed a problem to an experimental computer by D-Wave Systems and it solved it 3,600 times faster than a popular software from I.B.M. running on a high-performance machine.

“There is no sense in which this is the definitive statement about quantum computing,” Ms. McGeoch said. “I’m more interested in how well it works, not whether or not it is quantum.”

This is the highly experimental world of quantum computing, which “makes use of such unusual properties of quantum physics as a particle’s ability to move in one direction and its opposite at the same time.”

D-Wave, which was the subject of an article in The New York Times in March, has been criticized for making claims about its quantum capabilities that cannot be supported.

Over time, however, D-Wave’s performance has improved, and the skeptics have toned down their criticism. Nonetheless, D-Wave is sensitive about the issue and, even after selling a working machine to Lockheed Martin, eager to rebut the criticism.

D-Wave solves optimization problems by setting them in the context of energy consumption: the lowest power needed to achieve a stated outcome, which it says is quickly achieved through a quantum process, is the answer. D-Wave thinks that many problems in computing might be restated as optimization problems and that its machine could be coupled with cloud computing systems for particularly hard problems.

Ms. McGeoch said D-Wave’s chips had performed well and might have better outcomes in the future, as its machines become more powerful, and more complex optimization problems are set.

“There could be a tipping point,” she said. “If the problems get big enough, conventional systems break down. In theory, you could solve a large number of optimization problems. People don’t know how to do that conventionally without losing a lot of efficiency.”

It’s weird and complicated stuff, but the takeaway is this – scientists are re-imagining how computers work at their most basic level and it’s leading to faster and more powerful devices.

Don’t expect to have a quantum computer in your home any time soon – the applications here are far too specific and the hardware too costly for these machines to become household objects. But that’s only for now.

Source: The New York Times