D-Wave just wants to be another boring computer company

D-wave is probably the most prominent technology company accused of quackery in years . Its unconventional approach to quantum computing causes many to dismiss it as marketing hype, even as it makes the cover of Time magazine

Not six months ago, I interviewed a quantum researcher who refused to even use D-Wave’s name. That was after two prominent D-Wave customers, Lockheed Martin and Google/NASA, re-upped for its new machine.

D-Wave’s CEO, Vern Brownell, was in Cambridge last weekend to give a talk at a conference. We met for coffee. He understands why D-Wave is controversial; he almost hung up on the recruiter who called him in 2009 about the D-Wave job, because the company’s claims sounded outlandish.To me he said, “look, it uses quantum mechanics to do a calculation, so it is a quantum computer,” and cited the company’s 60 peer-reviewed papers. He acknowledged that it is impossible to test whether D-Wave’s computer is actually operating at 512 qubits, and that won’t change by next year, when D-Wave will introduce a 2,000 qubit processor.
Brownell, a goateed former chief technology officer at Goldman Sachs, thinks the issue really comes down to D-Wave’s use of adiabatic quantum processing (adiabatic means a process that works without generating substantial heat). He says other, older efforts to devise quantum computers have followed a classical computing architecture, with gates and the like, which is why the fastest not D-Wave quantum computer has only hit 22 qubits, not enough to do much. D-Wave claims its computers, running specialized programs, hit speeds rivaling supercomputers (“slow” supercomputers, yes, but supercomputers nonetheless). The D-Wave machines excel at specialized, complicated applications like Monte Carlo simulations used in financial modeling, and in machine learning applications.
I asked him if it even mattered whether D-Wave was actually doing quantum computation, given that it has companies paying millions of dollars for its machines. He said on a practical level, it did not. But on a business level, that it is doing quantum computing means it should be free from real competition for years to come, since it does not compete with classical computers, it expects to double or more than double its qubits every two years, and other quantum computing approaches remain stuck in labs.

Quantum computing is weird and spooky and the future. We certainly aren’t used to computers that do their work inside what Brownell described as a refrigerator the size of a coffee cup. All that makes it exciting to write about; before Time’s piece, there were stories like The CIA and Jeff Bezos Bet on Quantum Computing and D-Wave’s Dream Machine. Brownell managed to make D-Wave sound boring. 

He said the company’s real achievement so far has been developing what he called “the world’s best fab for superconducting circuits.” Goals for this year: announcing some more customers (he says D-Wave has a number of customers that it has not yet announced) and getting more software out the door.

Yawn. Just another boring computer company here, folks, changing the world. No quantum quackery to worry about.

Leave a Reply