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D-Wave: The $15m quantum computer of the future

A Canadian start-up company has revealed that it has seemingly done the impossible: it has created a practical quantum computer that is decades before its time. The device itself, while being the size of a garden shed, appears fairly simply from the outside being a black box with the firm’s logo on the side, but it will cost you more than $15m (£9m) to purchase.

The monolithic machine, devised by D-Wave, has the ability to solve mathematical problems by exploiting the world of quantum mechanics far more quickly than conventional computers. While a normal computer is only able to calculate one problem at a time due to information being stored in a string of 1s and 0s called bits, a quantum machine allows calculations to be performed simultaneously as the equivalent quantum bits (qubits) can be 1s and 0s at the same time. An analogy to explain how the machine walks compares standard computers “walking” across a difficult landscape to find the optimal solution to a problem at the “lowest” point, whereas the D-Wave will “tunnel” through it using quantum mechanics.

The company has already sparked interest among big names such as NASA, Google and Lockheed Martin, and the machine is still being investigated by independent teams to try to understand its functions.

D-Wave’s chief executive, Vern Brownell explained: “The original vision of the company was simple: build a commercially useful quantum computer as soon as possible. We just want to provide quantum computing resources to researchers and businesses around the world so they can solve really hard problems better than they can today.”

D-Wave first greeted the world with their quantum processors in 2007 with Orion, a machine which could solve Sudoku games and had the ability to search through public databases of drugs to find the nearest match for a molecule. It was then treated sceptically however, and it wasn’t until four years later when they unveiled the D-Wave One, named as the “first commercially available quantum computer” that people began to take notice of them.

D Wave 2

2013 saw the release of the D-Wave Two which was powered by a 512-qubit chip called Vesuvius, huge as compared to its earlier counterpart’s 128-qubits.

The machine has had to face various engineering issues in its short time, including the circuits being superconducting, meaning that they have no electrical resistance and no heat, therefore liquid helium must be used to cool it to -268C, just above absolute zero. It is encased in a Faraday Cage to prevent any external electrical fields interfering with the calculations going on inside.

D-Wave are currently working on their next chip which will be 1,024 qubits and will be released later this year. Aside from the bigger names they have released, D-Wave are not revealing its other customers, but they are expected to have a market expanding into finance, security, energy exploration and bioinformatics.