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D-Wave pitches quantum co-acceleration to supercomputing set

D-Wave's 512-qubit quantum system could help solve optimization problems much more quickly than supercomputers, the company boasts

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service
November 25, 2013 03:36 PM ET

IDG News Service - Controversial quantum device maker D-Wave is hoping to find a home for its cutting-edge technology in the high-performance computing (HPC) market.

 
Collin Williams D-Wave
Joab Jackson
D-Wave business-development director Colin Williams talks to supercomputer administrators about quantum computing
 

Colin Williams, the business development director for D-Wave, made a direct appeal to system administrators at the SC13 supercomputing conference, held last week in Denver.

"One of the reasons we're coming here to talk with you is that we are actively looking for partners in the high-performance computing space," Williams said. "We see quantum computing not as competition with HPC, but the potential with a lot of synergy with HPC people."

Administrators should think of "quantum computing being a new tool in your arsenal," Williams said.

Whereas HPC machines are suited for tasks such as computational fluid dynamics or large-scale analytics, quantum computers are best suited for other types of jobs, such as discrete combinatorial operations, Monte Carlo sampling and machine learning, he said.

Every new technology needs a proving ground, a place to test how well it works in day-to-day usage. D-Wave sees its quantum processor as a kind of gigantic co-processor for large HPC systems, one dedicated to certain tasks that would take conventional computers prohibitively long to execute. Williams called this approach "quantum-accelerated HPC."

Although theorized about for decades, quantum computing for the most part has not been commercialized. D-Wave may be one of the only companies offering a product based on quantum mechanics, that is, based on some of the unique laws of how matter operates on a microscopic level.

D-Wave does not yet offer a general-use quantum computer, but rather offers a system that does what Williams called "quantum annealing." It is designed to execute one set of problems difficult for classical computers to execute, known as NP-hard (non-deterministic polynomial-time hard) problems. NP-hard problems are informally known as optimization problems, in that they try to find the best overall solution to a problem within a large number of variables, and therefore, possible solutions.

Launched in 1999 in British Columbia, D-Wave released its first commercial 128-qubit computing device in 2011, and followed up with its current product, the 512-qubit D-Wave 2. The D-Wave 2 was purchased by both Google, which tested the system for image recognition, and NASA. Williams did not say how much the D-Wave 2 costs, but did say it could be leased rather than purchased.

A qubit, or quantum bit, is the quantum equivalent of a bit in classical computing. Unlike a traditional bit, which is either a 1 or 0, a qubit can hold both a 1 and a 0 simultaneously, called a superposition. So 512 qubits can hold 2 to the 512th power of computational threads.

Unlike classical computers, however, these threads can't be read individually -- they must be examined collectively as a single unit. As a result, quantum computers are suited "to very different problems," Williams said.

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