When Google and Nasa announced plans to boot up an honest-to-goodness quantum computer at Nasa’s Ames Research Center, it seemed like the beginning of something very big.
Researchers from around the world would get their chance to kick the tires of a D-Wave Two — an entirely new type of computer built by a Canadian company that claims it has harnessed the computing power of quantum physics. Lockheed Martin was already running a D-Wave system operated out of the University of Southern California, but the Google-funded Ames Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab was to be the company’s second customer.
“We’re excited to get started,” wrote Google Engineering Director Hartmut Neven in a blog post back in May, after the search giant purchased the machine. And last month, a Nasa Ames spokeswoman told us that engineers expected to have the system up and running by October.
But then came the government shutdown, which has shuttered everything from Yosemite National Park to, yes, the Nasa Ames Research Center.
As it turns out, Google just barely dodged a bullet. The Nasa team booted up their D-Wave Two just days before the federal government shutdown would have put a complete stop to the project. But with Nasa and Ames almost completely shut down, it’s not exactly clear what’s happening with the machine.
Because the D-Wave has to be finely calibrated — it operates at near-zero Kelvin — it would be extremely costly to shut the thing down and then restart it when the government comes back to life. So the machine is now operational, but it’s in a kind of limbo, at least as far as Nasa is concerned. “All the people from Nasa who are supposed to be testing the computer now are standing down and it’s just sitting there, wasting electricity,” says Lee Stone, the Ames union president who was one of the few people at Nasa who could speak to us during the shutdown.
That puts Google in a bit of an odd position. “The lab is shut down, but the computer itself is still accessible and working,” says Google spokeswoman Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi. She couldn’t confirm, however, that her company is actually running experiments on the machine. It’s not even clear what sort of stuff Google plans on doing with the machine when Ames is running at full tilt.
Although The Verge reports that the computer is being used to bring Google Glass’s wink-triggered apps into the quantum computing age, Radosavljevic-Szilagyi says that scientists are still figuring out what the machine can actually do. “It’s still early days with the quantum computer,” she says.
The most Google has done is release a video showing what the thing looks like.
It’s such early days that scientists aren’t in complete agreement that the D-Wave Two really is a quantum computer. The system has shown some aptitude for solving certain types of problems, but it seems that it’s not a general-purpose quantum computer — meaning it can’t handle just any task — and many people question how much it relies on the principles of quantum physics.
The big question is just how long D-Wave’s supercooled processor can remain in what scientists call a state of superposition. In Newtonian computing, the transistors on your computer are either on or off, but the quantum world introduces something new: the qbit, which be on and off simultaneously. So while bits give you 0s and 1s, qbits give you 0s and 1s and 10s and 11s. If a machine can use quantum physics to hold those states reliably and at the same time, then it could mean much more powerful computers than we have today. Despite some promising academic papers that seek to explain the D-Wave, what’s really going on under its hood is still a bit of a mystery.
“At the moment, it’s not clear to my eyes that D-Wave device is what we would call a quantum computer,” Wim van Dam, a computer scientist from the University of California, Santa Barbara. D-Wave didn’t return calls seeking comment for this story.
What is clear, however, is that nobody from Nasa is going to have much to add to this debate — at least until the government sequester is over. “There is zero ongoing testing from Nasa’s standpoint,” Ames Union President Stone says. “What’s being lost here is all of the time that we would be using this cutting-edge technology,” he says. “That is certainly disappointing at best and outrageous at worst.”