TORONTO — D-Wave Systems Inc. says their quantum computers can help solve climate change, too.
Earlier this month, the British Columbia government invested $2 million in Burnaby-based D-Wave, through the province’s Innovative Clean Energy fund, and Sustainable Technologies Development Canada gave the company $10 million to continue developing quantum computers, on the basis that they could save energy.
“The dirty little secret of the internet is that these conventional computers are one of the largest energy usages in the world. So it’s important that we offset that by technologies like ours,” said D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell.
“The particular type of quantum computing that we do is very energy efficient, and so will make a big impact on lowering the energy usage in computing over time, and eventually maybe even help on issues like climate change.”
Because D-Wave computers run very cold, Brownell said they’ll be a lot more energy efficient, and the funding from the B.C. and federal energy programs are a recognition of their promise.
“There’s a little bit of power used to cool the system down to that level, but it’s not much. It’s about 20 kilowatts, which is pretty trivial in today’s data centres,” he said. “As the power of this computer grows over time, it won’t generate any more heat, so as more and more applications move toward our form of quantum computers, they will achieve a real energy advantage.”
It’s simple enough to explain that the theory of quantum computing is based on leveraging the peculiar properties of subatomic particles to do complex calculations. But once you get into specifics — say, looking at “quantum annealing,” which is the basis of the D-Wave computers — the whole matter becomes horrendously complicated.
What’s most important is that quantum computers are not simply more than conventional computers but, in theory, will be particularly good for certain kinds of computing problems.
But the technology is still in its infancy, roughly akin to where conventional computing was in the 1950s, with researchers still struggling to figure out the best approach to building a useable quantum computer.
In fact, D-Wave is a bit controversial, because critics say its approach to quantum computing is limited and a dead end. In fact, when the company announced its most powerful quantum computer to date, critics argued that the quantum annealing approach does not produce better results than conventional computing, and never will.
On the other hand, in 2017 D-Wave said one of those computers would be installed at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab run jointly by Google, NASA and the Universities Space Research Association.
As the power of this computer grows, it won’t generate any more heat, so as more and more applications move toward our form of quantum computers, they will achieve a real energy advantage.D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell
And Brownell described how Volkswagen is using the $15-million D-Wave 2000Q computer to route taxis in Beijing.
“They started with data from Beijing and they developed technology that will basically send a command to a particular taxicab to take an alternate route with the goal of sort of smoothing out the traffic,” Brownell said.
“I think they just announced that they want to do this in other cities and build … a service out of it. So that’s a good example where … trying to figure out these potential routes and trying to route all these taxis at the same time is a very complex problem, and that’s the type of problem that’s very good for quantum computers and especially good for our quantum computer.”
One thing D-Wave’s computer can’t do is run something called “Shor’s Algorithm,” a hot topic in the quantum computing world because it has the potential to break all modern encryption. Some other models of quantum computing could be used in this way, if they get powerful enough.
But Brownell said he’s OK with that limitation.
“To me (it) isn’t an important application space, not something we particularly want to be involved in — you know, invalidating all of modern cryptography.”