D-Wave Systems is a Canadian startup that is pioneering the development of quantum computing, which has the potential to perform far more complex calculations than traditional computers.
While the concept of Quantum Computing has been around for decades, the science and product development have been advancing rapidly in recent years. D-Wave offers one of the few commercially available systems, and is partnering with a handful of major corporations to get quantum computing ready for mainstream use.
“We’re approaching being able to solve real-world problems,” says D-Wave president Bo Ewald. “I do think by the end of this year, and the next couple of years, you’ll see a set of problems where quantum computing does better.”
Over the past 50 years, computing power has reliably doubled every 18–24 months. But experts worry such gains are coming to an end as developers reach the limits of current computing architecture. With technologies like artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles demanding even greater computing power, researchers have been scrambling to find an alternative way to build far more robust computers.
That has led to a growing interest in quantum computing. Computers today have a binary system that uses bits, either zeros or ones, stored in electrical circuits made up of transistors. Quantum computers have the potential to perform far more complicated calculations because they rely on atoms that can simultaneously exist in multiple states. These are referred to as “quantum bits” or “qubits.”
D-Wave has been leading the push for quantum computing. Founded almost two decades ago by Canadian researchers, the company has raised about $200 million in venture capital. The company sells quantum computers to just a few select clients, while offering remote access others. The primary goal of all these relationships is to experiment and learn in order to push the technology forward.
“Our customers are not doing things that they can’t do with traditional computers,” Ewald said. “But people can start to see that within this generation that you’re going to able to do things that you weren’t able to do before.”
The biggest partners include NASA, the United States’ space agency, that is using a D-Wave computing system to do things like analyzing power grids to determine the probability of failure, and to pinpoint the weakest parts of the network. NASA is also examining how quantum computing can accelerate machine learning around some basic problems. And the agency is trying to see how quantum computing can design more sophisticated air traffic management systems that will be needed as growing numbers of vehicles — from drones to autonomous flying taxis — clog the skies.
D-Wave also has partnerships with Google and Volkswagen, which have used quantum computers to conduct a traffic study in Beijing as well as create models for new materials that could power long-lasting batteries.
In all these cases, however, partners have to narrowly define the problems and use limited data sets due to the current constraints of quantum computing. But Ewald says D-Wave expects to release a new version of its computers later this year that should be at least twice as powerful as the current generation.
It’s that looming horsepower that has him optimistic that quantum computing is finally on the cusp of demonstrating its real potential. Ewald says that he thinks 2018 will be a “year of inflection” for quantum computing. “We are going to start to see the quantum advantage for solving certain problems,” he says.