Google Buys Quantum Computer for Artificial Intelligence Lab at NASA

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To some of us, wicked fast quantum computers seem like the stuff of theory and some far off future. Not so if you work at Google or NASA. In a sign the technology is creeping closer to practical use, Google, NASA, and the non-profit Universities Space Research Association (USRArecently announced formation of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab and seeded it with a brand new 512-qubit D-Wave Two quantum computer.

Quantum computers promise to be orders of magnitude faster than classical computers and far better at the "optimization problems" associated with machine learning—improving not only Google search but perhaps ushering in the kind of “creative problem solving” humans associate with intelligence.

Each D-Wave quantum computer is housed in a 10’ featureless black cabinet. Inside the box, an apparatus hangs from the ceiling like a high-tech stalactite. A niobium chip resides in the tip and is cooled to a tiny fraction of a degree above absolute zero, at which point it becomes a superconductor. But apart from being colder than deep space, the way the computer itself functions differs from the classical model.

Classical computers solve problems by systematically switching transistors “on” (1) and “off” (0). Quantum computers use qubits to represent both classical states (0 and 1) plus an in between state enabled by a weird quantum property physicists call “superposition.” In superposition, the qubit is both 0 and 1 at the same time, allowing the system to consider multiple problems simultaneously.

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It's this simultaneity that makes quantum computers such efficient solvers of optimization problems.

In a blog post, Google tells us to consider how a current computer might find the lowest point in a series of hills and valleys. A classical algorithm would start at a random point and see if it can walk lower, repeating the process until it can no longer descend. Unless it got lucky with its starting point, there's a good chance the algorithm gets stuck in a local minimum, not the absolute minimum—it’s a solution, but not the optimal solution.

A quantum computer, meanwhile, would be able to consider multiple valleys simultaneously. It’s like “tunneling” through adjacent hills to see whether the valley next door is lower than the valley you’re in currently, thus raising the likelihood you find the lowest point.

Google is the second firm to purchase a D-Wave computer. The 14-year-old firm sold a 128-qubit D-Wave One to Lockheed Martin in 2011. Lockheed went on to establish the USC Lockheed Martin Quantum Computing Center later that year. The Lockheed machine has since been upgraded to the 512-qubit D-Wave Two, and according to the New York Times, the NASA Ames machine may be upgraded to a 2,048 qubit chip in the next year or two.

D-Wave’s machines have kicked up a little controversy over the years. The firm’s early claims tended to oustrip their machine’s proven capabilities, and some experts questioned whether the machines were true quantum computers.

However, in recent years, D-Wave has begun to win over the critics. Just last year, the firm called in a third party expert, Catherine McGeoch of Amherst University, to measure just how fast their machine was solving particular problems.

In some optimization problems, the D-Wave handily beat the test PC—finding solutions up to 3,600 times faster. But unless the problem is specially tailored to fit the quantum computer, it has to be translated. The D-Wave performed on par with the classical computer when working on problems in need of translation.

Whether the computer conforms to the favored definition of quantum computing may be largely academic. Google and its partners performed rigorous tests of the hardware before cutting D-Wave a check.

SH 121_#3D-Wave’s director of business, Colin Williams told the New York Times, “The tougher, more complex [problems] had better performance. For most problems, it was 11,000 times faster, but in the more difficult 50 percent, it was 33,000 times faster. In the top 25 percent, it was 50,000 times faster.”

According to their blog, Google has already developed some quantum computing algorithms. Because the D-Wave is so good at specific problems, they think some classical/quantum combination may prove ideal. Perhaps future quantum chips will provide the kind of power boost specialized graphics processing units (GPUs) have recently provided supercomputers. Or maybe the "neocortex” of future AIs will be comprised of a quantum chip, whereas the rest will remain classically driven.

There’s yet much work to be done before these machines find practical applications, but Google thinks “quantum machine learning may provide the most creative problem-solving process under the known laws of physics.”

Image Credit: D-Wave, Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • Jordan Tribby June 5, 2013 on 1:00 pm

    Sorry to rain on that parade. I was initially ecstatic to see news reports suggesting that the Quantum Computing Era had arrived (Google and NASA dropped some change after-all, it MUST be true). It turns out the story is more complicated. While nobody can rule out a bright future for D-Wave or quantum computers generally, D-WAVE HAS NOT YET DEMONSTRATED ITS SUPERIORITY OVER CLASSICAL COMPUTERS. The test results being reported are not nearly as impressive as it first appears once the whole picture is taken into account (and Prof McGeoch herself admits as much.)

    Scott Aaronson, one of the world’s leading experts warns,
    “It appears that, while the D-Wave machine does outperform certain off-the-shelf solvers, simulated annealing codes have been written that outperform the D-Wave machine on its own native problem when run on a standard laptop.”

    It should be noted that Cathy McGeoch herself stated on Scott Aaronson’s blog that “Our tests were never meant to be used to compare platform speeds, and it is wrong to use our data to support arguments either way.”, “Fundamentally, I think the experiments in our paper … are far too small in scope to support any conclusions about the larger picture.”, “I think the results are not nearly as exciting as the press does.”

    Alex Selby writes “Prof McGeoch, is careful to say (and I’m grateful for her personal communication) that her tests were a comparison between D-Wave and some specific software packages, so it would be improper to conclude anything about D-Wave vs classical computers as a whole. However, that has not stopped many commentators, including from the scientific community, doing just that…”.

    Don’t get me wrong, everyone is rooting for D-Wave, it would be awesome to get a speedup over classical computers, and perhaps that day will come. As it stands, the the press is largely distorting what has actually been achieved in the CURRENT VERSION of D-Wave. It’s exciting that a 2,048 qubit chip is in the works. Hopefully in future tests, adequate effort will be put into writing simulated annealing codes that best capture the capability of the classical computer so as to provide a more fair comparison of platform speeds.

    • Leszek Kicior Jordan Tribby June 10, 2013 on 12:50 pm

      Although it’s easy to dismiss the claims as untrue, I highly doubt Google, NASA and Lockheed Martin would spend millions on a modern equivalent of snake oil.

  • why06 June 5, 2013 on 2:28 pm

    Sorry about my previous comment, I meant the technology is in it’s infancy, I didn’t mean to disrespect the work, the design is solid and can be built upon for many years I’m sure.

    I just visited D-Wave’s website and flat-out. It’s the coolest damn thing I’ve seen, in on/off 6/7 years of learning about computers. I think for the first time in my life ik exactly what I want to do. I want to program quantum computers, but I never thought I’d be able to do it in my lifetime. I’ve only hear about them in science fiction. Simply put: <-mindblown

    In my computer science class we learned about perceptrons, and what I immediately saw by looking at the array of switches, was this was just a mask to show to the layperson their use, but to anyone who works with or has seen neural networks… WOW the application is immediately obvious!

    All I can say is that conventional processors were never designed for AI in the first place. This gives the ability to do an impossible operation in a single operation. It's speed is only limited by the number of qubits available. Any person serious about AI, needs to start thinking about application of this technology in their business. I can see why Google is jumping in early to buy these and get techniques designed to program these incredible machines.

  • Jay Dillon June 11, 2013 on 8:27 am

    Prices for “Atom Chip Corporation”‘s “Atom Chip Computer”–which is claimed to be a “quantum optical computer,” developed by Dr. Shimon Gendlin, formerly of Kappa Numerics in Israel, are now running at anywhere from $18,000 to $25,000+ each, having been in classified testing by the US Army for several years. Not sure how to acquire these systems, but which of these claimed “quantum computer” systems (D-Wave or Atom Chip Computer) is better? [The Gendlin “Atom Chip Computer” is different from Intel’s later trademarked “Atom Chip” which they apparently named in retaliation for Gendlin’s patenting his invention in the USA after work which Intel claims was done “under the auspices” of Intel at Kappa Numerics.]

  • Slade Grantham June 30, 2013 on 9:30 am

    AI is will be produced by one type of computer, rather it will be produced by all the different types of computers with the addition of nanoneurons that are self: replicating, repairing & self-organizing much like our own neurons. We may not even have the intelligence needed to design the AI and will have to increase our own intelligence threshold before we can create an artificial conscious being that has an intelligence like our own.

  • Divine Sciences October 11, 2013 on 6:37 am

    Very interesting….!!!

  • Bekir Doğan October 14, 2013 on 1:29 pm

    I think it is only useful in complex physics, aerodynamic calculation, weather analysis, astrophysics, defense industry. But at the same time it wouldn’t be a selfish behaviour to quench to get one of them.