Artificial Intelligence

Quantum Computing - A Eureka Moment.

Last Friday, I realized the sort of place I work in: an academic Computer Science institute that bears more than a passing resemblence to the ficticious TV town of 'Eureka'. We don't have flying cars, or intelligent, rebellious, precocious attack bots, but we do have some cool stuff. Take the 128-QuBit Quantum Computer housed the ground floor of parking lot where a sandwich shop used to be, for example. This is the next generation of computers, using the superposition effects of quantum mechanics to process vastly many more states than our current 'classical' computers can accomplish. This is the sort of stuff that really good sci-fi writers incorporate into their novels, it's hardcore-science-at-the-bleeding edge and it's chugging away, downstairs from me right now.

They had a ribbon-cutting ceremony today for this amazing, dramatic machine today. I looked around the main seminar room at ISI and saw more suits and ties than I have ever seen there except when, perhaps, the Provost visited us earlier this year. There were some discussions from the head of the institute, the chief of Lockheed Martin, the Dean of the School of Engineering and then Geordie Rose stood up. This guy is the Founder and CTO of D-Wave, the company that makes the Quantum Computer we now have in our basement (so to speak) and he gave us a phenomenal presentation.

Geordie Rose walks us through the superconductor electronics at the heart of the D-Wave1 Chip.

He began with an anecdote: of how a chance meeting with his professor in a business class that he took whilst he was taking his Ph.D. in theoretical physics  had lead, eventually to this moment; how that original meeting might not have happened had he not bothered to complete an assignment he wanted at the time to ditch (so remember kids, do your homework!). He told us how he had started the company in 1999 and this was the first sale he had made (12 years is a hell of a long time to keep any sort of dream going on fumes like that) and we could see how thrilled he was to be here, now, showing us this stuff. He told us a little of how the system worked and attempted, at one point, to rush through the technical details (accompanied by howls of protest from the assembled geeks in rapt attention). 

The system operates at 20 milli-Kelvin (0.02 degrees above absolute zero), which is 100 times colder than intergalactic space. In fact, his machine is probably one of the coldest points in the universe, unless there are any other lifeforms out there building similar machines. The machine is incredibly well-shielded from stray magnetic fields so that only one other device on the planet has a better 'magnetic vaccuum'. He was practical in his descriptions, showing us circuit diagrams, explaining the physics, describing the sorts of computations we might be able to do on this device. 

Basically, my take-away message was that we will be able to do computations involving many many more parameters than previously possible. Even now, he's promised the next upgrade of the chip (going from 128-QuBits to 512-QuBits) might allow us to speed up a computation that would take 320,000 years to perform classically to a mere 120 ms. Naturally, this was talk for venture capitalists, but still, awesome stuff. The way we need to frame our thinking is to use the tools of Machine Learning approaches that many in the AI community use already. OK, this, I think, is something we can do. Already, colleagues at USC have worked on preliminary studies on 'Quantum Adiabtatic Machine Learning' on this system, and it was a sobering moment when Geordie looked at us all with a serious expression at the end of his talk and said: "What I want from you are Nature and Science papers that use this machine and demonstrate its capabilities". I realized the sort of place I work in. We have a responsibility to realize these visions. We have a commitment to attempt to push the envelope. I feel that this is the greatest privelege a human being can have in life, to attempt to make a difference through innovation, ideas and action.

What a day to finally arrive in Eureka.  


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