It can be awfully hard to build a fire when you are all alone in the middle of wild, inhospitable territory. D-Wave is trying to do just that. To start a fire in commercial quantum computing. And they are currently the only company trying to do so. You have to be very foolhardy to do something like that, but that’s what it takes to achieve real progress.
D-Wave builds and sells adiabatic (or annealing) quantum computers based on Josephson Junction superconducting technology. (An adiabatic QC is different from a gate model QC. Other researchers are trying to build gate model QCs.) The May 12, 2011 issue of the prestigious Nature magazine featured a very nice paper by D-Wave. (I discussed the physics behind the paper in a previous post). Two weeks later, D-Wave announced that they had signed a multi-year contract with the Lockheed Martin company for an undisclosed amount.
For me, since I believe that someday soon quantum computing will become a very useful and widespread technology, this is great news, because it benefits not just D-Wave but the whole QC field. I’m hoping that this news will generate new interest, jobs, private investment and startups in the QC field.
I believe that D-Wave’s future success is totally guaranteed
I believe that the QC field is very bountiful and presently untapped, and that therefore D-Wave or any other company that makes an honest attempt to explore this field and stake a commercial claim in it, will almost certainly succeed.
Since it was founded in 1999, D-Wave has obtained more than $100 million in funding from sources such as: the venture capital firm Harris & Harris, the Canadian government, and Goldmann Sachs. This is quite an impressive sum. And now, with their newly announced contract with Lockheed Martin, they are sitting financially in the catbird seat, at least for a while.
D-Wave’s recent paper in Nature has convinced even some skeptics that the D-Wave computer is doing interesting quantum physics.
I also believe that D-Wave’s future success is not guaranteed in the least
Unfortunately, the fact that D-Wave is doing interesting quantum physics does not guarantee that it will be commercially successful in the long-term.
The example of the Thinking Machines Corporation comes to mind. According to Wikipedia, Thinking Machines was founded in 1982 and filed for bankruptcy in 1994. During its 12 years of existence, it produced 5 successive commercial versions of its Connection Machine, plus many innovations in hardware and software for parallel processing. Thus, as a computer science experiment, it was hugely successful. According to Wikipedia:
It became profitable in 1989 thanks to its DARPA contracts, and in 1990 the company had $65 million (USD) in revenue, making it the market leader in parallel supercomputers. In 1991, DARPA reduced its purchases amid criticism it was unfairly subsidizing Thinking Machines at the expense of other vendors like Cray, IBM, and in particular, NCUBE and MasPar. By 1992 the company was losing money again, due to lack of business
The reasons usually given for why it went bankrupt are over-reliance on DARPA contracts and gross mis-management. The following riveting article, which I highly recommend, explains in detail the reasons for its downfall:
The Rise and Fall of Thinking Machines. A close up look at a doomed-yet-brilliant start-up computer company that never quite grasped the basics of business. By Gary A. Taubes (Inc. Mag, Sep 15, 1995)
The good news is that according to the Wikipedia article, once Thinking Machines went broke, large parts of it were purchased by Sun and Oracle corporations, so it doesn’t look like its employees went hungry.
I don’t think D-Wave is mis-managed, but note that Lockheed Martin is primarily a defense contractor.
D-Wave also has to worry about the looming competition. We hope adiabatic QCs pan out, but it’s possible that gate model QCs will prove superior. (In such a case, D-Wave could use their expertise in superconducting technology to develop their own gate model QC, so this wouldn’t necessarily put them out of the game.)
An exciting horse race is likely to occur between D-Wave and the research groups at UCSB and Yale Univ. that are trying to build a gate model QC using superconducting technology.
The UCSB and Yale Univ. groups have been making some very confident noises lately. UCSB recently unveiled its “RezQu” architecture:
- To the Rescue, Musketeers! To the Rescue!(A previous post in this blog)
- “Resonator/zero-Qubit architecture for superconducting qubits” by Andrei Galiautdinov, Alexander N. Korotkov, John M. Martinis, arXiv:1105.3997, abstract
And Yale Univ. is pushing its “transmon qubits”:
- “How coherent are Josephson junctions?” by Hanhee Paik, D. I. Schuster, Lev S. Bishop, G. Kirchmair, G. Catelani, A. P. Sears, B. R. Johnson, M. J. Reagor, L. Frunzio, L. Glazman, R. J. Schoelkopf, arXiv:1105.4652, abstract