Blog: Transforming Science into Useful Technology

As CEO, I spend a lot of time talking to potential customers, investors, partners and the press. One of the questions I often get asked is how a small company in Burnaby, British Columbia could possibly have built the world’s first commercial quantum computer. (Some people just refuse to accept that we have done so, despite the growing evidence from our published research and that of independent scientists.)

The answer to the question is based on four fundamental decisions made by Geordie Rose and the founding team over a decade ago:

1. The goal they set was to build a commercially useful quantum computer that could help solve previously unsolvable, complex problems.

The important point is that the team wasn’t interested in an academic research project. They wanted to figure out how to manufacture (and scale) a technology that could be commercially useful in attacking problems that traditional computer technology isn’t very good at. This includes complex optimization problems and machine learning applications.

2. They decided to secure venture funding as the primary way to fund the company.  We found visionary investors who shared our passion and saw the potential to change the technology landscape.

Recognizing that there are very few investors today who are willing to invest in change-the-world companies and have the patience required for such a major endeavor, D-Wave has had the good fortune to have the support of outstanding investors. They enable us to continue to advance the technology and grow our customer base.  The alternative, to depend on government grants and the whims of academic funding, would never have allowed us to focus on the goal at hand for over a decade.

3. The quantum approach – adiabatic vs gate.

There are many different approaches being taken to develop a quantum computer. The most common, and the one that almost all the academic efforts are focusing on, is the gate model. This is based on a very familiar approach that traditional computers use – namely using digital logic gates as the building blocks of computers.  Gate model quantum computing creates quantum equivalents of digital logic gates – and puts these gates together to build a quantum computer - an approach which certainly makes complete sense.

The problem is that is very difficult to build and scale a gate model quantum computer as they are extremely susceptible to environmental factors as well as being difficult to control and correct for errors.  Despite many years of research, there has been very slow progress made toward the development of anything near commercially useful.  That’s not to say that these efforts aren’t useful – they are crucial for improving our understanding of quantum computing and pushing science forward.  And while this approach is a viable way to build quantum computers in the long term, I’ve seen estimates by quantum experimentalists that it will take between 10 and 30 years.

Instead of pursuing a gate model approach, the D-Wave founding team chose to build an adiabatic, or quantum annealing processor. This approach has the advantage of being relatively robust against environmental interference.  It has also allowed us to leverage existing superconducting integrated circuit technology by building macroscopic-sized qubits fabricated using well understood semiconductor fabrication techniques.

4. A focus on fabrication – from the beginning. 

The focus on a way to manufacture superconducting quantum integrated circuits that can scale in performance has been crucial to our success.  Think about how important and necessary semiconductor manufacturing technology (aka fabrication) has been for scaling the hardware and software ecosystems that we take for granted today.   This fabrication technology will be just as important as an industry is created to build and scale the upcoming quantum computing hardware and software ecosystems.

There are other factors of course that have brought us to where we are today. Most notably it is the people we have hired. As you might expect, it requires a tremendous diversity of skills for a project like this, from some of the highest end computer scientists to chip designers to people who understand ultra low temperature physics. Our small team, now just over 100 people, includes many of the world’s experts in quantum computing. They also share a common passion to do something meaningful and contribute to solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems.

Thanks for reading this inaugural blog. Have a great 2014.

Vern