Google researchers claim they're working on a supercomputer that harnesses the power of quantum physics to calculate in one second problems that would take a regular machine 10,000 years to solve. If they're right — some people have raised questions about their claims — then the world could be at the dawn of a new age of über-powerful computers.
"Because the operating system of nature, as far as we understand it, is quantum physics, you need a process that acts on quantum physics to describe parts of the universe," said Hartmut Neven, Google's director of engineering, at a press conference at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, on Tuesday. "Sooner or later, quantum computers will be the tool of choice to solve these problems."
Neven and NASA officials were specifically discussing the D-Wave 2X quantum computer, a machine build by D-Wave Systems in Canada. It's a 10-foot-high black box that cools its processor to temperatures that are 180 times lower than interstellar space in a vacuum whose pressure is 10 billion times lower than the atmosphere, according to the company.
Quantum computers could help self-driving cars navigate in traffic, regulate enormous water systems, and help develop new drugs by understanding how infinitesimal proteins function in the human body, the company claims.
"The more we can understand shapes of proteins in our bodies and the shapes of potential drugs interacting with the shapes of proteins, the better we can attempt to develop new medicines," said futurist Ramez Naam, a former Microsoft software developer. "It's a big opportunity for quantum computers in a positive sense."
Where regular computers use the well-known binary language of bits — either ones or zeros — quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can be one, zero, or both depending on how they're used. The change unlocks more computing power, allowing quantum computers to consider untold variables compared to conventional machines.
Some experts have questioned whether the D-Wave 2X is as advanced as Google and its makers claim, however. They noted that Google engineers often match the D-Wave in tests against regular computers using specific algorithms that give the D-Wave an advantage.
"This is certainly the most impressive demonstration so far of the D-Wave machine's capabilities," Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science professor Scott Aaronson told New Scientist magazine. "And yet, it remains totally unclear whether you can get to what I'd consider 'true quantum speedup' using D-Wave's architecture."
Naam was also quick to caution that the D-Wave wasn't necessarily a revolutionary technology. Quantum computing is still in its infancy, he said. "It could be we make huge breaks in quantum computing that allow us to create new practical uses," Naam said. Or, he added, "it could not [in] this century."
Still, Goldman Sachs — which has invested in D-Wave Systems — and CME Group, the largest futures exchange, are considering purchasing the $10 million quantum computers to get a leg up in the competitive world of Wall Street, where number-crunching computers are already a crucial to business, Bloomberg reports.
That doesn't sit well with everyone.
University of Maryland law professor Michael Greenberger, a former official at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said he was concerned about traders the potential use of quantum computers for high-frequency trading, which involves rapidly buying and selling shares in companies with the goal of squeezing out fractions of a penny with each trade. It's a practice that can wreak havoc in financial markets.
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High-frequency trading helped cause the so-called "flash crash" of 2010, when Navinder Sarao, 36, working from his parents' house in a London suburb, allegedly caused computer-generated sell orders to push down the prices of stocks he then bought for a bargain. The New York Stock Exchange lost 1,000 points in a day. It recovered soon after, but a US grand jury indicted Sarao on charges of manipulating financial markets. He's now fighting extradition to the US.
Greenberger asked what might happen if an allegedly unscrupulous trader like Sarao got his hands on a quantum computer.
"It's hard to believe they could be any faster than they are now," he said. "They are operating in microseconds. To the extent they can be speeded up even by a microsecond, it will make the problem that much worse."
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