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The quantum computing startup D-Wave reached a major milestone in February.
Quantum computing is a relatively new field in which special properties of quantum mechanics — most basically, the ability of quantum bits to exist in multiple states simultaneously — allows machines to process exponentially more information, faster than even the most powerful supercomputers today.
It has the potential to help solve problems in chemistry, materials science, food production, drug discovery, economics, and even climate change, although experts say that it will be about five to ten years before quantum computers become commonplace.
Several companies have invested significantly in quantum computing research and development, including IBM, Microsoft, Google, Intel, and startups like D-Wave, which has raised $216.2 million according to Crunchbase. Amazon Web Services has also built a cloud quantum computing service.
Recently, D-Wave collaborated with Google scientists to conduct an experiment that simulated a quantum magnetic system and published its results in Nature in February. It discovered that its quantum computing technology could simulate this magnetic system 3 million times faster than a classical computer.
“This is a milestone that all the other rivals will have to match in the near future,” Andrew King, director of performance research at D-Wave, told Insider. “They’re all using different technologies and all at different points.”
In late 2019, Google announced that it was the first firm to reach quantum supremacy — which refers to when a quantum computer solves a problem that no classical computer can solve in a feasible amount of time — when it solved a problem in 200 seconds that would take a powerful supercomputer 10,000 years to solve. Notably, IBM cast doubt on whether Google could actually claim the landmark, writing in a blog post that a regular supercomputer could calculate that problem in a shorter amount of time than Google claimed.
Although many experts do agree that Google reached this a major milestone, some don’t believe that Google’s experiment — which involved verifying whether a large set of numbers was truly random — was a practical, real-life problem.
D-Wave’s King said the firm’s own experiment on “geometrically frustrated magnets” — which modeled the behavior and state of special types of magnets — showed quantum supremacy at work on a more practical problem, since its findings can be used in materials science to better understand magnetic systems.
“It’s important for the quantum computing industry as a whole because this simulation is something people are interested in doing with computers anyway, not just something we’re doing because it works well on quantum computing,” King said.
The various tech firms each have their own strategies for approaching quantum computing, and D-Wave uses a method called “quantum annealing” which is well-suited to optimization problems, like finding ways to allocate resources or save on costs.
Volkswagen, for example, has been working with D-Wave for traffic routings, scheduling vehicle paint jobs to minimize costs, and improving its manufacturing process. D-Wave president and CEO Alan Baratz. says that with D-Wave’s system, Volkswagen came up with a scheduling system that resulted in 80% less waste compared to the scheduling they created with classical computers.
In September, D-Wave launched a 5th generation quantum computer called Advantage which developers can buy access to on a per-problem basis. It’s also working on hybrid computing systems, where classical computers use quantum algorithms to solve complicated problems.
D-Wave’s technology has been used in logistics, drug discovery, and more, Baratz said.
“We now are at a point where we can solve real business problems,” he said. “We have customers that are doing that.”
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