Intriguing news from the world of high technology. Lockheed Martin says it will integrate a quantum computing platform from Canadian partner D-Wave Systems into its business, which would be an important first. But there are skeptics. The New York Times reports:
Quantum computing has been a goal of researchers for more than three decades, but it has proved remarkably difficult to achieve. The idea has been to exploit a property of matter in a quantum state known as superposition, which makes it possible for the basic elements of a quantum computer, known as qubits, to hold a vast array of values simultaneously.
There are a variety of ways scientists create the conditions needed to achieve superposition as well as a second quantum state known as entanglement, which are both necessary for quantum computing. Researchers have suspended ions in magnetic fields, trapped photons or manipulated phosphorus atoms in silicon.
The D-Wave computer that Lockheed has bought uses a different mathematical approach than competing efforts. In the D-Wave system, a quantum computing processor, made from a lattice of tiny superconducting wires, is chilled close to absolute zero. It is then programmed by loading a set of mathematical equations into the lattice.
However, the company’s scientists have not yet published scientific data showing that the system computes faster than today’s conventional binary computers. While similar subatomic properties are used by plants to turn sunlight into photosynthetic energy in a few million-billionths of a second, critics of D-Wave’s method say it is not quantum computing at all, but a form of standard thermal behavior.
This has not stopped Lockheed Martin’s chief technical officer from claiming an important milestone. In the Times article, he sketches out ambitious plans, including simulation of how radiation bursts from a solar flare or nuclear detonation would affect satellite software.
Whereas the bits in a traditional binary computer are restricted to one state at a time — 1 or 0, on or off — quantum computing can simulate a bit in multiple states. The physics and engineering of this are frankly over my head, but the point is that practical quantum computers would be a shattering paradigm shift. They would perform operations and crunch numbers many orders of magnitude faster than standard processors. By that logic, they will crack conventional encryption standards in a matter of hours by brute force.
Indeed, cyberwarfare is a natural application for quantum computing, but its strategic value extends well beyond, into medical research and engineering. The technology is being pursued by myriad universities, firms, and governments. If this announcement by Lockheed Martin — a leading defense contractor — and D-Wave Systems is accurate, history will remember it for decades to come.