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The CIA and Jeff Bezos Bet on Quantum Computing – Technology Review

With funding from the Amazon founder and the CIA’s investment arm, the Canadian company D-Wave is gaining momentum for its revolutionary approach to computing.

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TOM SIMONITE

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Entangled: This is part of the structure that cools and shields the D-Wave processor so it can (apparently) conduct its quantum calculations.

D-Wave Systems

Inside a blocky building in a Vancouver suburb, across the street from a dowdy McDonald’s, is a place chilled colder than anywhere in the known universe. Inside that is a computer processor that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the CIA’s investment arm, In-Q-Tel, believe can tap the quirks of quantum mechanics to unleash more computing power than any conventional computer chip. Bezos and In-Q-Tel are in a group of investors who are betting $30 million on this prospect.

If the bet works out, some of the world’s thorniest computing problems, such as the hunt for new drugs or efforts to build artificial intelligence, would become dramatically less challenging. This development would also clear the tainted reputation of D-Wave Systems, the startup whose eight-year-long effort to create a quantum computer has earned little more than skepticism bordering on ridicule from prominent physicists.

D-Wave’s supercooled processor is designed to handle what software engineers call “optimization” problems, the core of conundrums such as figuring out the most efficient delivery route, or how the atoms in a protein will move around when it meets a drug compound. “Virtually everything has to do with optimization, and it’s the bedrock of machine learning, which underlies virtually all the wealth creation on the Internet,” says Geordie Rose, D-Wave’s founder and chief technology officer. In machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, software examines information about the world and formulates an appropriate way to act in the future. It underpins technologies such as speech recognition and product recommendations and is a priority for research by companies, such as Google and Amazon, that rely on big data.

“Our intelligence community customers have many complex problems that tax classical computing architecture,” Robert Ames, vice president for information and communication technologies at In-Q-Tel, said in a statement released today. In-Q-Tel’s primary “customer” is the CIA, and the National Security Agency is another. Both are known to be investing heavily in automated intelligence gathering and analysis.

Rose, a confident Canadian with a guitar and samurai sword propped in the corner of his windowless office, has been making grand claims to journalists since 2007, when he unveiled D-Wave’s first proof-of-concept processor at a high-profile event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Attendees saw a D-Wave processor (apparently) solve sudoku puzzles and find a close match to a particular drug molecule in a collection of other compounds. But in the weeks, months, and years that followed, skepticism and accusations of fraud rained down on the company from academic experts on quantum computing. Rose’s initial predictions about how quickly the company would increase the size and capabilities of its chips fell by the wayside, and the company, although still well-funded, was publicly quiet.

Signing up Bezos and In-Q-Tel—the company’s most prominent backers yet—is the latest in a series of events that suggest D-Wave thinks it is ready to finally answer its critics. In May 2011, the company published a paper in the prestigious journal Nature that critical academics said was the first to prove D-Wave’s chips have some of the quantum properties needed to back up Rose’s claims. Artificial intelligence researchers at Google regularly log into a D-Wave computer over the Internet to try it out, and 2011 also saw the company sign its first customer. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin paid $10 million for a computer for research into automatically detecting software bugs in complex projects such as the delayed F-35 fighter (see “Tapping Quantum Effects for Software that Learns”). Questions remain about just how its technology works, but D-Wave says more evidence is forthcoming. It is readying an improved processor that Rose calls the company’s first true product rather than a piece of research equipment. D-Wave is expected to announce other major customers in coming months.

via The CIA and Jeff Bezos Bet on Quantum Computing – Technology Review.

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