Quantum computers could be next great leap for mankind

Scientist Eric Ladizinsky compares advent of new technology to discovery of fire

A strange new kind of computer is under development that is almost too complex to describe.

It will have unimaginable power and will easily outperform today’s supercomputers – provided of course it can be made to work at all.

Quantum computers are at the early stage of development, but look promising enough to attract the interest of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Google and the Universities Space Research Association.

Canadian based D-Wave is a quantum computer development company right in the middle of this, producing early prototype quantum devices in the 10 years since it was established.


The company's chief scientist and co-founder Eric Ladizinsky is in Belfast and Dublin this week to give talks on how far things have progressed with quantum computing.

“Quantum computing represents a paradigm shift, a radical change in the way we do computing and at a scale that has unimaginable power,” Ladizinsky said in advance of his talks.

He fully believes that quantum computing could revolutionise the information age and have as big an impact on society as the conventional computer already has.

“It will be able to do computation that would be forbidden on the computers we build today,” he said.

Many commentators would argue that quantum computing is still more about theory than an actual product that can be sold, but D-Wave has managed to live off investments and more recently on actual sales of the devices it builds at its Burnaby, British Columbia headquarters.

Nasa interest

Its latest model the D-Wave 2X system has been installed at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab at Nasa’s Ames Research Center.

“You can buy processors now. Many companies like Google are using them to begin to understand how they work and what they can do, same as does Lockheed and Nasa,” said Ladizinsky.

“Sales provide revenue and confidence for our investors that there is interest in our processors, and we have raised significant venture capital.

“We are still working to become self-sustaining, but with every generation of processor that comes out the more inevitable it becomes that we will reach this point.”

The company formed in 2004 when Ladizinsky joined up with D-Wave’s original founder Geordie Rose to change the IP based company into a technology development company.

“At D-Wave we built a mini Manhattan project, founding a company with a focus on quantum processing. It was interdisciplinary and managed to raise finance from visionary investors. The plan was not only to build microscopic circuits but build macroscopic circuits with quantum computing properties,” he said.


Quantum computing is based on an area of physics called

quantum mechanics

. It describes the unusual way that matter interacts with matter not at human scale but at a scale down to atoms and electrons.

Strange counterintuitive things happen in that world and it is these characteristics that are central to and harnessed for quantum computers.

The net result is a computer that can achieve parallelism that easily outstrips the same capacity in conventional computing.

Today’s computers can only handle data bits as either a one or a zero and can only do this one step at a time.

Quantum computers handle what are called quantum bits or qubits that can readily have a value of one or zero or anything in between, Ladizinsky says. And they can have these millions of values all at one time.

“Imagine you have a maze and there are billions of ways to turn left and right and you are given five minutes to get through. With conventional computing you would try each path sequentially.”

But quantum computing would allow all possible paths to be tested simultaneously with an answer given immediately. This is the power that is possible with the technology, he said.

The more qubits a device has the greater its potential. One early prototype from 2007 had a 16-qubit processor and by 2011 it had a 128 qubit chipset. Early versions tended to be designed to tackle a single type of problem. Its latest processor offers more than 1,000 qubits.

“We built the only quantum computing platform in a scalable form up to 1,000 quantum objects and can control the interaction between them,” he said. “We have come a long way in a very short period of time. That is the goal, to become self sustaining, and based on that you can do research into new forms of quantum computer or a universal machine.”

Evolutionary leap

He has a missionary-like zeal about quantum computing and likens it to other great moments when humans discovered new ways of harnessing nature such as the use and control of fire, tool making and the development of early technology.

He believes quantum computing is just such a moment when a basic characteristic of nature – quantum mechanics – is harnessed to deliver something new for the benefit of society.

Eric Ladizinsky's visit to Ireland was organised by the Royal Irish Academy, the Canadian Embassy and the Irish Centre for High End Computing. His talk is entitled 'Evolving Quantum Computers'. The lecture is free of charge but booking is essential at ria.ie.

The talk on Wednesday, November 4th is at 6pm at Riddel Hall, Queen's University Belfast and on Thursday, November 5th at 7pm at Burke Theatre, Trinity College Dublin.

The talk is the inaugural annual John Bell lecture. It commemorates the life of John Bell (1928-90) who was born in Belfast and conducted important research in quantum mechanics and proving that quantum entanglement is real.