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Quantum annealer. To solve a problem, D-Wave's chip seeks the lowest energy state of 512 interacting quantum bits, or qubits, fashioned from tiny rings of superconductor.

Quantum annealer. To solve a problem, D-Wave's chip seeks the lowest energy state of 512 interacting quantum bits, or qubits, fashioned from tiny rings of superconductor.

Courtesy of D-Wave Systems Inc.

Quantum or not, controversial computer runs no faster than a normal one

The D-Wave computer, marketed as a groundbreaking quantum machine that runs circles around conventional computers, solves problems no faster than an ordinary rival, a new test shows. Some researchers call the test of the controversial device, described online today in Science, the fairest comparison yet. But D-Wave argues that the computations used in the study were too easy to show what its novel chips can do.

"This is likely the most thorough and precise study that has been done on the performance of the D-Wave machine," says Helmut Katzgraber, a computational physicist at Texas A&M University, College Station, who was not involved in the work. However, Colin Williams, a quantum-computer scientist and D-Wave’s director of business development, says the problems used as benchmarks were "not at all the right choice for probing a quantum speedup."

D-Wave Systems, a startup in Burnaby, Canada, has sold machines to Lockheed Martin Corp. and Google. The company claimed an earlier version of its $10 million machine was 35,500 times faster than an ordinary computer. However, to test D-Wave’s machine, Matthias Troyer, a physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and colleagues didn't just race it against an ordinary computer. Instead, they measured how the time needed to solve a problem increases with the problem's size. That's key because the whole idea behind quantum computing is that the time will grow much more slowly for a quantum computer than for an ordinary one. In particular, a full-fledged "universal" quantum computer should be able to factor huge numbers ever faster than an ordinary computer as the size of the numbers grow.

The D-Wave machine is not a universal quantum computer, however, but a more limited "quantum annealer." Its processor consists of a 2D array of quantum bits, or qubits, made of superconducting loops that carry electric currents. The qubits act like tiny magnets that can point up, down, or—thanks to quantum weirdness—both up and down at the same time. Each qubit can interact with certain others through linkers that can be programmed so that the qubits can lower their energy by pointing either in the same direction or in opposite directions. The idea is to encode a problem by specifying the hundreds of interactions within the chip and solve it by finding the qubits' lowest energy "ground state."

To do that, the machine starts with each qubit in an up-and-down state and slowly turns on the interactions. The system then seeks the lowest energy state, like a marble rolling across an evolving energy landscape to find the deepest valley. In a nonquantum device, the jiggling of thermal energy would drive the marble over the terrain to the low spot through a process called thermal annealing. In the D-Wave machine, however, the marble supposedly also "tunnels" quantum mechanically between the low spots to find the lowest one faster. For problems such as pattern recognition or machine learning, that might give the quantum machine an edge.

But is the D-Wave chip really quicker than a conventional computer? To find out, Troyer and Daniel Lidar, a physicist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, tested the Lockheed Martin machine against a conventional computer programmed to simulate thermal annealing. To keep things simple for the D-Wave chip, they didn’t ask it to do practical calculations. Instead, they merely set the interactions between qubits randomly and timed how long it took the machine to find its ground state.

In spite of that home-field advantage, the D-Wave chip produced no quantum speedup. The researchers ran problems for different-sized groups of qubits, ranging from the chip's basic unit of eight to its total of 512. The computing time for the conventional computer increased exponentially with the number of qubits. But so did the time for the D-Wave machine, Troyer says.

Ironically, the test may not be revealing because the problems may have been easy for the ordinary computer, too, says Texas A&M's Katzgraber. Choosing interactions at random, he explains, typically creates test problems in which qubits lock into a low-energy configuration only exactly at zero temperature. That means that at any higher temperature, the energy landscape rolls gently and thermal annealing can readily coax the system to the solution. Given the easiness of the problems for both machines, Katzgraber says, the study is like "two world-class skiers racing on the bunny slope."

But some researchers doubt that a quantum annealer will ever produce a useful quantum speedup. Theory strongly suggests that, unlike a universal quantum computer, it can't, says Umesh Vazirani, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "I would bet that there's not a speedup," he says. Hartmut Neven, director of engineering at Google, counters that he is "convinced that we will be able to find problem classes for which a next-generation quantum annealer will outperform any classical algorithm."