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After supplying a quantum computer to Google and NASA, D-Wave sets its sights on becoming the Intel of a new era of supercomputing

For 10 days in October, a super-cooled processor housed in a lab at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., hummed quietly, calibrated at near zero degrees Kelvin (or -273 C), untouched by the space agency that had helped put up a reported $15 million for the made-in-B.C. machine and its refrigeration units.

For the agency’s furloughed researchers—victims of the short-lived U.S. government shutdown—the closure marked a blip in their research into the potential of the lab’s newly purchased quantum computer. But for D-Wave Systems Inc., the Burnaby-based pioneer in the world of commercial quantum computing, the mere presence of its technology in NASA’s lab was the culmination of two decades of turning a concept confined to theoretical physics into a machine that its founder believes will usher in a new era of supercomputing.

“We’ve turned from an intellectual-property aggregator, a manager of basic research, into an engineering firm with a specific vision of what we want built,” says Geordie Rose, D-Wave’s athletic, 41-year-old founder and chief technology officer. “We’ve built a quantum computer that is useful to do something in the real world. It’s a bittersweet moment because I’ve realized that we’ve completed our initial vision: we’ve done what we’d set out to do, which was to build a quantum computer and use it.”

Last May a consortium spearheaded by NASA, Google and the Universities Space Research Association announced it had contracted with D-Wave to install D-Wave’s $15-million, 512-qubit computer in the consortium’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab in Mountain View, Calif. (A qubit is a unit of quantum information, used to measure computing capacity the way a “bit” is in binary computing.) The intention stated at the time was to probe the limits of machine learning, computing at 3,600 times the speed of a conventional semiconductor.

To date, the computer has been used to develop algorithms that will allow Google Glass to distinguish between intentional winks and involuntary winks. In the Ames lab Google runs competing teams, says Haig Farris, D-Wave’s first investor and co-founder, and the former chair of the board: one team in blue throws up new problem classes suited for quantum hardware, the other in red refines classical algorithms to match or outperform D-Wave’s technology. A couple of months after the computer’s installation in September last year, Google had yet to publish results, but the company has stated that it is “optimistic” it can find challenges where the quantum hardware is superior.

Google’s use of D-Wave’s technology dates back to 2009, when the search giant built a system that could communicate with D-Wave’s machine in the company’s Burnaby industrial park. It would ask what are known in the computing industry as optimization questions, such as asking machines to calculate the shortest travelling distance between multiple cities.Google did not pay to use the machine, according to Farris, but its usage did set the groundwork for its future sale and installation.

Tethered in copper wires, housed in a 10-by-10-foot chamber with D-Wave’s logo stamped in blue neon on the exterior, the chip’s refrigeration unit resembles an upside-down wedding cake descending from the ceiling of the vacuum-sealed box, devoid of sound, light and the outside world’s regular magnetic pulses. D-Wave’s chip is buckled into the lowest rung of the hanging refrigeration unit, no larger than a thumbnail, only the second of its generation to be installed in a lab outside of the Lower Mainland.

“If you want to make a new chip, you have to invest on the order of a few billion [dollars],” says Rose. “From the outset, we stated that if these machines could be built, it would be on the order of billions of dollars, and roughly 10 years to get the first working prototype.”

In his pitch to investors, D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell runs through a quick anecdote about the electronic numerical integrator and computer, or ENIAC, installed in a University of Pennsylvania lab on Valentine’s Day in 1946. ENIAC, commonly recognized as the world’s first general computer, occupied a nearly 50-by-30-foot rectangular space. It was wrapped in vacuum tubes and transistors prone to blowing out, and drew enormous amounts of electricity. It also had the processing power of today’s low-end smartphone.

“We’ve spent $140 million and our processing power is at the high end of what’s available,” says Farris. “The economic upside will be enormous. We’re only going to be part of it, but it’s still a big thing.”

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