Medical researchers, chemists and financial modellers could soon be able to solve more challenging equations, using a computer powered by quantum processors developed by the Canadian firm D-Wave Systems.
D-Wave demonstrated a system it calls "the world's first commercially viable quantum computer" on Tuesday at a press conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The company plans to begin selling these new computers in 2008, pitching them as an adjunct to conventional digital computers, not a replacement for them.
A quantum computer can solve problems with enough data to stump a modern supercomputer, such as the behaviour of electrons in a molecule, D-Wave said. To solve such equations today, researchers use approximate simulations, but quantum computers will be able to model each electron.
The system relies on processors built with the superconducting materials aluminium and niobium. When these metals are cooled to absolute zero, their electrons form special particles called bosons, according to D-Wave. Bosons are powerful tools for computing because they can hold binary values of both zero and one simultaneously, whereas conventional digital bits must choose a single value.
Even more important, these quantum bits -- called qubits -- all mimic each others' values, following the laws of quantum dynamics. That allows computer scientists to instantly amplify their effects, creating super-fast quantum computers (QCs).
"Even very primitive QCs will be able to outperform supercomputers in simulating nature," the company said. "As QC technology matures, systems containing hundreds, thousands, even millions of electrons will be able to be modelled by the direct, brute force solution. ... This means that the fundamental equations of nature will be solvable for all nanoscale systems, with no approximations or fudge factors."
Despite that potential, quantum computers must always be built as hybrids of conventional computers, D-Wave CEO Herb Martin said in a statement. D-Wave, of Burnaby, British Columbia, was formed in 1999, when it was spun off from the University of British Columbia. The company is also busy creating software applications to manage the new chips.
There are other ways to create quantum processors, such as trapping atoms with lasers or building optical circuits with photonic crystals, but D-Wave says it will bring its chips to market first by using existing semiconductor industry technology to build them.
Still, many other researchers are developing their own novel forms of processors. On Monday, Intel researchers said they have built an 80-core chip that performs more than a teraflops (trillions of floating point operations per second) while using less electricity than a modern desktop PC chip.
In December, IBM announced it had improved its ability to control photons, drawing closer to building a chip that moves data as pieces of light instead of electricity. And in September, Intel said it had found a way to mount tiny lasers on chips, allowing it to someday move data by shooting light through silicon fibres instead of electricity through copper wires.
And while all those approaches are several years from reaching the commercial market, a company called Clear Speed Technology already sells massive, 96-core chips that act as accelerators for the chips in supercomputers from IBM and other vendors.