Moore’s Law famously states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every year.  This has roughly proven true, with computing power doubling on that approximate schedule.

Catherine McGeoch, a professor of computer science at Amherst College, recently conducted an experiment to test the speed of a quantum computing chip versus conventional massively parallel supercomputers.

In the world of high-performance computing, quantum computers have been the Holy Grail ever since they were first proposed by Yuri Mann and Richard Feynman in the 1980s. A quantum computer is, shockingly, a computer that leverages quantum phenomena to make super-fast calculations.

Using the properties of the adiabatic theorem, D-Waves’ Vesuvius prototype is “the world’s first commercially available quantum computer” – a 512-qubit chip capable of making all of the calculation that a traditional, transistor-based chip can make.

To test how the Vesuvius chip stacked up again traditional computers, McGeoch focused on the classic “travelling salesperson” problem (TSP), a cornerstone of theoretical computing. The TSP is categorized as an optimization problem and asks “Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what is the shortest possible route that visits each city exactly once and returns to the origin city?”

The results of her test, which will be discussed later today, found that while the traditional chip took thirty minutes to solve the problem, the Vesuvius was able to complete the same task in less than half a second.

Though the Vesuvius does have incredible speed, McGeoch hedged on whether quantum computer are likely to be commercial products, saying “This type of computer is not intended for surfing the internet, but it does solve this narrow, but important type of problem really, really fast”. Its need for a cryogenic cooling system to keep it at a constant twenty milliKelvin may also limit its mass-market appeal.

But while solving complex yet narrow problems will likely be the domain of giants like governments and Google, McGeoch remembers back to one erroneous prediction made in the early days of computing. “The founder of IBM famously predicted that only about five of his company’s first computers would be sold, because he just didn’t see the need for that much computing power.”

In the coming years, McGeoch predicts that “these quantum computing methods will solve more and bigger problems significantly faster than the best conventional computing options out there”. Maybe, in the coming decades, quantum computing will allow us to immediately diagnose cancer, or have deep understanding of our neuro-chemistry.  At that point, it might behoove us to have this technology at our disposal, so we can diagnose and understand our body’s ever changing make-up in real-time.

Regardless of whether any of my sci-fi fantasies come to pass, it does seem that quantum computing might not be up-ending Moore’s law so much as making it obsolete.

Watch a Video Detailing the Development of D-Wave’s Quantum Computers:

Images and Video Courtesy of D-Wave Systems

 

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