LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Google and NASA have partnered to purchase a new kind of computer, one that uses quantum mechanics to solve problems that are too complex for regular computers.
NPR's Geoff Brumfiel takes a look at the next generation of computing technology.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: This new quantum computer is literally a black box the size of a small room, or to be more precise, a black cube.
Geordie Rose is chief technology officer with D-Wave Systems, the Canadian company that made the machine.
GEORDIE ROSE: Inside that black cube is a machine called a dilution refrigerator which cools the brains of the computer down to just a fraction above absolute zero.
BRUMFIEL: At these extremely low temperatures, the rules of quantum mechanics take over. These rules are very different from those used in a normal computer. For example, a regular computer can only work with separate bits of information: ones and zeros. But in a quantum computer...
CHRISTOPHER MONROE: There's a certain intrinsic wiring between the bits that sort of comes for free. It's called quantum entanglement.
BRUMFIEL: Christopher Monroe is a physicist at the University of Maryland's Joint Quantum Institute.
MONROE: Quantum computers use, they exploit this resource called entanglement to do certain tasks that can be shown for certain problems to be exponentially faster than what could be done without a quantum computer.
BRUMFIEL: What might take decades can be done in hours. D-Wave claims its latest processor has 512 quantum bits. That's enough to tackle some really tough problems, says Geordie Rose. In particular, problems that require sifting through lots and lots of possible answers.
ROSE: The best answer or the highest or the lowest or the smallest or the meatiest, you know, no matter what. If it's got an iest at the end and you can write down a mathematical equation for what you mean about that, then you can attack it with one of our machines.
BRUMFIEL: And that's why Google and NASA are interested. They've partnered with an independent research association to start a quantum artificial intelligence lab centered around the D-Wave computer. Both organizations want to develop systems that can learn to spot patterns in massive, messy datasets.
ROSE: They want to continue to understand how to increase the intelligence of machines.
BRUMFIEL: But many scientists still have questions about how well the D-Wave computer really works. Until now, most quantum computing has been done on a small scale. And physicist Chris Monroe says that D-Wave's 512-bit chip may be too big to keep everything entangled.
MONROE: If you make the system bigger, in every platform I know of it gets harder, and in fact, the entanglement goes away faster.
BRUMFIEL: Too fast to do any calculations. D-Wave's computer is solving tough problems and for specific cases it can beat a conventional rival. But the company hasn't been able to convince Monroe that entanglement is doing the work.
MONROE: They've shown no evidence of entanglement, now that doesn't mean to say that what they're doing is not interesting.
BRUMFIEL: Monroe says this new chip is so unusual in its design that it might be working in a way that can sometimes beat other computers, even without entanglement. D-Wave's Geordie Rose says that's fine with him.
ROSE: Academic groups tend to want to focus more on the quantum part than the computing part, and that's fine. It's just not what we do. What we do is build computers, and if we can build the fastest computers the world has ever known, you can call them whatever you like and I'll be happy.
BRUMFIEL: Regardless of what D-Wave's machine is doing, quantum computing is not going away. The strange rules of quantum physics are just too tempting for technology companies to ignore.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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