In 1965, co-founder of Intel Gordon Moore made a famous prediction: the number of transistors on a microprocessor chip, and thus its performance, will continue to double every two years. Widely known as Moore’s law, this bold claim transformed the semiconductor industry as processor chip manufacturers rushed to fulfill this prediction every year. While attempts have been successful for the past 60 years, transistors are now starting to reach their physical limitations and Moore’s law finally seems doomed to fail. But computer software company D-Wave Systems, Inc. has a solution: if processors can no longer speed up on a classical level, then why not design processors that function on a quantum level?
While the topic of quantum mechanics may appear daunting at first, the general basis behind this fascinating science is rather simple. To provide a brief summary, quantum mechanics is a relatively new branch of physics that focuses on processes happening at an atomic level. It arose when scientists realized that rules of physics governing the world at a large scale don’t seem to match the behavior of subatomic particles like electrons and photons. While objects in classical mechanics exist in a specific place at a specific time, objects in quantum mechanics can exist in numerous different places and be different things at the same time. Additionally, quantum mechanics isn’t just confined to theoretical physics. Companies that can incorporate this new variable into their machinery could potentially change the entire industry of their field, which is ultimately what D-Wave is currently trying to accomplish.
For the past several decades, the semiconductor industry built faster, more efficient processor chips by building increasingly smaller transistors. The idea is that the smaller the transistors are, the more you can squeeze on a microprocessor chip and the faster the chip can process information. So far, the most advanced microprocessors have circuit features that are only 14 nanometers long, which is smaller than the size of most viruses (Nature, “The chips are down for Moore’s law,” 02.09.2016). Experts estimate that in a few years, manufacturers may start building transistors that are only 10 atoms long. But despite the industry’s successful track record, there is a definite limit to how small a transistor can be before it becomes too unreliable to use. That is why D-Wave used the bizarre rules of quantum physics to create a supercomputer that can process data much faster than what classical computing will ever be capable of. In 2015, the company announced the construction of the world’s first fully-operational quantum computer, the D-Wave 2X system (D-Wave, “Meet D-Wave,” 2014).
The big question for most people, however, is how does a quantum computer work? Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gained huge media buzz on the internet when he offered his own explanation: “What quantum states allow for is much more complex information to be encoded into a single bit. A regular computer bit is either a 1 or 0—on or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that because as we know, things can be both particle and wave at the same time and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer” (Maclean’s, “Trudeau versus the experts: Quantum computing in 35 seconds,” 04.19.2016).
Although initially impressive, Trudeau’s explanation is not quite correct. While it is true that conventional computers use bits that are either a 1 or a 0, the quantum states of quantum computers don’t allow more information to be squeezed into a single bit (The Washington Post, “Actually, Justin Trudeau doesn’t get quantum computing,” 04.18.2016). A quantum bit, or a qubit, is in a state of complete mystery until it is measured, at which point, it becomes a normal 0 or 1. However, what makes quantum computers so powerful is that being in that state of complete mystery, known as superposition, allows a qubit to be 0, 1 or both at the same time (D-Wave, “Quantum Computing,” 2014). This characteristic is what gives quantum computers like the D-Wave system their most valuable feature: the ability to consider all possibilities simultaneously and choose the best one.
While a classical computer solves a problem by considering each possible solution one at a time, experts estimate that a quantum computer can process and solve a problem up to a 100 million times faster than a conventional computer (ExtremeTech, “Google: Our quantum computer is 100 million times faster than a conventional system,” 12.09.2015). Given this extraordinary speed, it’s little wonder that Google, NASA, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Department of Energy have all showed great interest in D-Wave’s product (BBC, “Quantum computing: Game changer or security threat?” 04.05.2016).
Quantum computing allows the tech industry to not only meet the predictions of Moore’s law, but also greatly surpass them. The D-Wave 2X system is expected to become an irreplaceable asset in solving optimization problems that require sifting through enormous stockpiles of data. Examples of the D-Wave computer’s applications range from finding more accurate patterns in weather to becoming the cutting-edge tool in financial analysis that’s worth millions of dollars (BBC). Its ability would usher a new age of computing that scientists in the past would have deemed impossible.
Despite all the promise that it offers, quantum computing remains a relatively infantile field. The D-Wave system is not perfect and their processing capabilities are currently limited. In addition, quantum computers like D-Wave’s cost between $10 million to $15 million due to the difficulty behind building one (BBC). These machines require liquid nitrogen to cool its hardware to just above absolute zero (-273.15 C) in order to maintain its quantum state and any interference, whether outside or inside, could potentially destroy the fragile balance in the system. Yet despite the difficulties involved, the field of quantum computing has attracted the attention of international organizations around the world who are interested in a slice of this revolutionary new benchmark in scientific achievement. In the end, we should expect further details about the semiconductor industry’s latest and greatest solution as it seems like Moore’s law won’t be broken anytime soon.