In a related post we wrote that the NSA is trying to build a quantum computer, so they can decrypt data more quickly. Currently the time required to decrypt data makes it impractical do to so. For example, mathematicians recently demonstrated that they could decrypt something with a 768-bit key in two years–two years is a long time. The only way to make this go faster, is to make a faster computer. That is the goal of a quantum computer.
While the NSA is trying to build a quantum computer, there is already one on the market. It is called D-Wave, and it comes from Canada. (And you thought they only made whiskey). Here we look at their product and explain what a quantum computer is.
The name quantum computer comes from the field of quantum mechanics, which is the study of something very small, like quarks and atoms. (Celestial or classical mechanisms, e.g., Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, is on the other hand, the study of something very large: the universe.)
Quantum mechanics is based on something called the Uncertainty Principle. This means you can never know an object’s state, because efforts to measure that will invariable change it. To put this in terms that we can understand, it’s like saying that a supermodel working as a nurse in the hospital cannot measure the male’s heart rate–it will increase as she comes near.
A quantum computer builds upon this idea by suggesting that a bit can have both the value 1 and 0 at the same time. That allows the computer to calculate all possible variations of a combination of bits by knowing all possible variations at once. Instead of calling these items bit, as in a conventional computer, a quantum computer calls them qubits.
One of the problems with quantum computers is they are subject to electromagnetic radiation and they require the cold temperature of deep space. So the D-Wave 512-qubit processing is stored inside a 10 square meter shielded, extremely cold room.
Google, Lockheed Martin, and NASA are some D-Wave customers. What they are doing with them is not exactly clear, as they are still probably trying to figure out how to make them useful.
Quantum computers could be put to many uses, mainly research, but the most obvious applications are optimization and sampling problems. An optimization problem is one like: (a) what product mix should I manufacture to maximum profit or (b) what route should I travel to cover all my required stops and use the least amount of fuel. If you pile on enough inputs into this models, normal computers cannot work through the problem is any reasonable amount of time.
The sampling problem could be of interest to the NSA. Sampling means statistics. Sampling data packets and looking for a pattern is one way to crack the WEP encryption on a wireless router. Because it is easy to do, WEP is being replaced by something more complex. The NSA might be considering this, and not just use brute-force factorization, in their quest to crack codes.
Other uses of the D-Wave computers could be to put them to use trying to decipher meteorological data to make a better forecast. Stock pickers will certainly try to use them to do technical analysis to somehow forecast stock prices. If you can forecast stock prices accurately within just a few minutes using statistical sampling, there is much money to be made.
Google has made an interesting video showing off their machine they purchased with NASA and thinking whimsically of some of its possible uses.
Now, imagine having some of these computers in your data center. That would require an entirely new approach to performance monitoring and environmental controls like temperature. It would be a quantum shift.