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Behind the Scenes at NASA and Google's Quantum AI Lab

"If you think you understand quantum physics, you don't understand quantum physics."

— Richard Feynman, Quantum Theorist

The first commercial quantum computer was pioneered by Canadian firm D-Wave Systems, which unveiled its first prototype, a 16-qubit superconducting adiabatic quantum processor, in 2008. This novel type of superconducting processor uses quantum mechanics to massively accelerate computation.

In May, D-Wave's current flagship product, the 512-qubit D-Wave Two computer, was installed at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) facility at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., under the direction of NASA, Google and the Universities Space Research Association. The partners are using the AI Lab to explore the frontiers of quantum computing and space research. In the interim months, the staff has been hard at work preparing the D-Wave system for the exciting challenges that lie ahead.

Earlier this month, Google et. al. debuted a brief film at the Imagine Science Films Festival at Google New York exploring various dimensions of the project. Quantum physics is not easily boxed and labeled. As an area of research, quantum theory is linked to such major philosophical and practical matters as consciousness, intelligence, free will, determinism, black holes, protecting the planet from asteroids, ions, photons, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and time travel, among others.

As stated in the film, "Quantum physics puts everything into question. It defies every intuition you have about the modern world."

In addition to raising these deeply provocative theoretical and philosophical concepts, the video also provides a close-up look at the D-Wave machine (the quantum processor) and the infrastructure required to power and cool it.

Then the focus turns to applications.

"The overwhelmingly obvious killer app for quantum computation is optimization," says D-Wave CTO Geordie Rose. As problems get larger, and more and more data is generated, extracting useful insights from that data grows ever more challenging. That's where optimization comes in.

While the film steers clear of the "big data" phrase, one of the main transformations of this big data age is identifying answers without having to know the question. It's a point that is emphasized by NASA's Eleanor Rieffel. "We don't know what the best questions are to ask that computer," she says. "That's exactly what we're trying to understand now."

On Google's AI Lab Team's website, the Google team affirms that quantum computing holds the key to solving some of the world's most complex computer science problems. They write: "We're particularly interested in how quantum computing can advance machine learning, which can then be applied to virtually any field: from finding the cure for a disease to understanding changes in our climate."

In related news, D-Wave announced today that it had selected a new foundry partner, Cypress. D-Wave transferred its proprietary process technology to the new site in January 2013, and Cypress delivered the first silicon parts on June 26. D-Wave states that the decision has already resulted in better yields, which it says validates the quality of Cypress's production-scale environment. Cypress's Wafer Foundry is located in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Editor's note: Since publishing this story, we received an email from a NASA representative noting that work on this project has not been performed in secret as the original article suggested. She writes: "The system was being installed, tested, calibrated, and benchmarked over the summer. A very limited amount of work on the system has just begun recently, and was delayed by the government furlough, so no results are available to discuss."

We'd also like to clarify that the statements made on the Google team's website represent their views only, not necessarily those of the other partners. For more information from the perspectives of the other partners, please see their respective websites:


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