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Interview: D-Wave Systems Steps Up With Quantum Computing

Last week D-Wave Systems announced it had closed $29 million in funding to accelerate development of the company’s quantum hardware and software. With all this money coming in, is Quantum Computing ready for Prime Time? To learn more, we caught up with Dr. Colin P. Williams, D-Wave’s Director of Business Development & Strategic Partnerships.

insideHPC: What’s new at D-Wave Systems?

Colin P. Williams, D-Wave Systems

Colin P. Williams, D-Wave Systems

Colin P. Williams: Well we’ve grown substantially and matured as a company. We’ve expanded our customer base. We’ve hired many talented people who have strengthened our core technical, administrative, legal, and management teams. We’re in the final stages of perfecting the design of our next generation, “Washington”, quantum processor. We’ve cemented new business relationships with companies, including 1QBit, DNA-SEQ, and QxBranch, aiming to develop software for our platform. And we have gained a deeper understanding of the best ways to harness quantum computing resources.

insideHPC: From your point of view, where does the controversy stand on whether D-Wave systems are really quantum computers?

Colin P. Williams: To me, the question “Is it quantum?” has now been answered affirmatively.

  • In particular, it has now been shown that:
    • D-Wave’s Vesuvius processor generates significant entanglement throughout the critical stages of quantum annealing (see Lanting et al. “Entanglement in a Quantum Annealing Processor,” Phys. Rev. X 4, 021041, 29th May (2014);
    • None of the classical models so far proposed to describe the D-Wave processor match its dynamics, whereas a quantum model describes it perfectly across a wide range of effective temperatures without any parameter fine tuning (see Albash et al. “Distinguishing Classical and Quantum Models for the D-Wave Device,” arXiv:1403.4228v3); and
    • Not only are quantum effects present in the D-Wave processor but they play a functional role in the computations it performs (see “Computational Role of Collective Tunneling in a Quantum Annealer”, arXiv:1411.4036).
  • Thus, at this point, the evidence is squarely in D-Wave’s favor that the device is indeed quantum mechanical in nature, and that the quantum effects present in the chip play a functional role in the computations it performs.
  • The discussion is now shifting to “Is there a quantum speedup?” Answering this question has proven to require more finesse than people appreciated initially. It turns out that the preliminary negative-sounding data was either the result of people using a set of problem instances that were too easy, or a set of problem instances that involved parameters whose precision exceeded the design tolerance of the current chip. So, going forward, we are putting more effort into constructing meaningful benchmark tests for quantum speedup, and into defining performance metrics that let us tease apart the fundamental capabilities of the chip from the effects of parameter misspecification. We will be rolling out these new benchmarks and new performance metrics later this year.

insideHPC: Are your customers using your products for practical applications? If so, how much faster than are these applications running when compared to conventional x86 computers?

Colin P. Williams: The programming model for the D-Wave system is quite different from that of a conventional computer, so it isn’t likely anyone will simply port their existing code for some application to a D-Wave machine and instantly run it faster. Rather, the application will usually need to be reformulated in a manner suited to quantum annealing and then optimized further with respect to our architecture. Certainly, Lockheed, Google, and NASA are all seeking to gain competitive advantage in their respective application areas by harnessing quantum computing resources at the earliest possible opportunity. Moreover, there is an ecosystem emerging around startup companies writing software that is “quantum ready”, i.e., able to run on both conventional and quantum computers. For example, 1QBit has developed an application related to detecting the onset of correlated behavior in a financial market with a view to signaling impending market instability. Another company, DNA-SEQ, is using D-Wave technology in the context of personalized medicine to help predict the best drug to give cancer patients whose tumors have become resistant to standard therapy.

insideHPC: I borrowed this one from Dan Olds: Is there a parallel universe where D-Wave systems are faster than Intel Servers?

Colin P. Williams: That is what we’re counting on!

insideHPC: What are the barriers to doubling the number of Qbits on your system?

Colin P. Williams: There are no roadblocks preventing us from doubling the number of qubits for the foreseeable future. Indeed, we have been able to maintain our qubit-doubling trend for over 10 years now, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. For certain discrete combinatorial optimization and discrete sampling problems, the hardest problem instances at around 500 to a few thousand variables become extremely challenging for classical computers. And in certain fields, such as machine learning, there are one or two core computational kernels that dominate the cost of training. So fretting about scaling the hardware to infinite sizes is somewhat irrelevant in the commercial context. To have an impact, it is sufficient to find an extreme pain point for some high value discrete optimization or sampling problem and solve it better or faster than the classical competition. That is what we are focussed on doing.

insideHPC: What is your main mission for the exhibit at ISC High Performance in July?

Colin P. Williams: The exhibit provides us with a great opportunity to connect with prospective customers, explain our technology, answer any questions they might have, and discuss how our quantum technology might dovetail with their existing HPC infrastructure. We routinely pick up new sales leads from such conversations. I hope to have a big enough booth to showcase one of our systems on the exhibition floor someday!

insideHPC: D-Wave just received $29 million in new funding as well as plans to increase staff to over 120 people. What will this investment enable for the company?

Colin P. Williams: Yes, we’ve been very fortunate to have strong support from investors, and we are very appreciative of the new funding. This new investment will allow us to expand our engineering team substantially, and to parallelize multiple internal development projects. With these parallel tracks, the step improvements we will see from one processor generation to the next will be more dramatic than they have been historically. We are not wedded to any particular approach, architecture, or algorithm. We embrace whatever is needed to make the most kick ass quantum processor we possibly can.

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