Saturday science subject: Google goes quantum

— 2:10 PM on January 9, 2010

Is this officially the future? New Scientist reports that Google has been quietly working on a quantum computing project for the past three years, and the company made its first results public at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Vancouver, Canada last month.

In a blog post about the research, Google's Hartmut Neven says his team collaborated with D-Wave Systems, a Vancouver-based firm that "develops processors that realize the adiabatic quantum algorithm by magnetically coupling superconducting loops called rf-squid flux qubits." The image recognition team at Google used this hardware to develop an algorithm capable of identifying cars in photos. New Scientist has the skinny:

Using 20,000 photographs of street scenes, half of which contained cars and half of which didn't, they trained the algorithm to recognise what cars look like by hand-labelling all the cars with boxes drawn around them. . . . After that training, the algorithm was set loose on a second set of 20,000 photos, again with half containing cars. It sorted the images with cars from those without faster than an algorithm on a conventional computer could – faster than anything running in a Google data centre today, Neven says.

Classical computers use what is known as a von Neumann architecture, in which data is fetched from memory and processed according to rules defined in a program to generate results that are stored. It is pretty much a sequential process, though multiple versions of it can run in parallel to speed things up a little. . . .Quantum computers, however, promise much faster processing, by exploiting the principle of quantum superposition: that a particle such as an ion, electron or photon can be in two different states at the same time. While each basic "bit" of data in a conventional computer can be either a 1 or a 0 at any one time, a qubit can be both at once.

You'll find more nitty-gritty details in Neven's blog post, which also links to two papers about the theory and the subsequent demonstration (PDF).

As exciting as this development seems, New Scientist points out that some dispute whether the D-Wave processor Google used actually has quantum properties. Neven acknowledges that in his blog post, stating, "It is not easy to demonstrate that a multi-qubit system such as the D-Wave chip indeed exhibits the desired quantum behavior and experimental physicists from various institutions are still in the process of characterizing the chip."

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