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Lockheed-Martin signs on for D-Wave prototype computer

A quantum leap in sales, from zero to one

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Controversial Canadian company D-Wave, which has long made press claims about “commercial” quantum computing, can now claim to have sold a machine.

Even while debate still rages over whether its technology truly constitutes quantum computing, the company says that Lockheed-Martin is going to buy its D-Wave One machine for a rumoured US$10 million.

Exactly what the D-Wave One is, however, is still up in the air – as is the relationship between what its marketing department writes and what the company has actually built. For example, while the company describes the machine as offering 128 qubits of processing, other physicists say the D-Wave paper in Nature demonstrates only “non-classical effects” (ie, behaviours that appear to happen at a quantum scale) in an eight-qubit system.

If the machine was truly performing quantum computing, this would still represent a great leap forward, since most current work on quantum computing is only able to demonstrate a few qubits at best.

According to MIT associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering Scott Aaronson, a long-time critic of the company, D-Wave’s Nature article actually goes beyond its previous predilection for glossy-but-inaccurate media releases and shows off a quantum effect.

“In the new work, they apply an annealing operation to eight coupled qubits arranged in a 1D chain, then plot the probability of a particular basis state as a function of time, by running the experiment over and over and stopping it at various intermediate points. They then look at the dependence of the probability-versus-time curve on a third parameter, the temperature, and claim that they can explain the curve’s temperature dependence by a numerical simulation that assumes quantum mechanics, but not by one that assumes classical simulated annealing,” Aaronson writes.

Unpicking this, the quantum effect demonstrated – quantum annealing – is apparently present in the D-Wave demonstration, but the extent to which this effect is currently commercially useful in solving real-world problems is less clear.

It is still agreed, for example, that D-Wave’s techniques do not yet generate entanglement, which seems to suggest that they are still confined to problems that are also tractable to “classical” computers. The D-Wave claim is that it can solve such problems faster than a classical computer. In its Nature abstract, its claim is this:

“Such a system may provide a practical physical means to implement a quantum algorithm, possibly allowing more-effective approaches to solving certain classes of hard combinatorial optimization problems.”

So what is Lockheed-Martin doing?

It looks a little like the defence giant is going to tip in some money in return for acting as a development platform for D-Wave. Its money will give it access to the machine itself (which would allow it to assess for itself whether or not quantum effects are at work, and whether the D-Wave One implementation can outperform a classical computer on problems harder than Sudoko solutions).

D-Wave gets a customer that routinely deals with complex computational problems, knows the constraints in “classical” solutions to such problems, and probably has the intellectual clout on-hand to help express those problems in terms a ‘quantum’ computer can handle.

So while more substantial than D-Wave’s association with Google, the Lockheed-Martin contract is still more about ongoing R&D than a product on the verge of commercialization.

For another interesting and brief discussion of the merits of D-Wave's work, read Dave Bacon's discussion on Quora. ®

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