As I am preparing to again get back into more regular blogging on Quantum Computing, I learned that my second favourite Vancouver based start-up, General Fusion, got some well deserved social media traction. Michel Labarge's TED talk has now been viewed over a million times (h/t Rolf D). Well deserved, indeed.
This reminded me of a Milken Institute fusion panel from earlier this year, which seems to have less reach than TED, but is no less interesting. It also features Michel, together with representatives from other Fusion ventures (Tri Alpha Energy and Lockheed Martin) as well as MIT's Dennis Whyte. The panel makes a compelling case as to why we see private money flowing into this sector now, and why ITER shouldn't be the only iron we have in the fire.
It took only one scientist to predict them but a thousand to get them confirmed (1004 to be precise). I guess if the confirmation of gravitational waves couldn't draw me out of my blogging hiatus nothing could, although I am obviously catching a very late wave. The advantage of this - I can compile and link to all the best content that has already been written on the topic.
Of course this latest spectacular confirmation will unfortunately not change the mind of those quixotic individuals who devote themselves to fight the "wrongness" of all of Einstein's work (I once had the misfortune of encountering the maker of this abysmal movie. Safe to say I had more meaningful conversations talking to Jehovah Witnesses).
The beauty of a direct experimental measurement as performed by LIGO, is that the uncertainty can be calculated statistically. Since this is a “5-sigma” event, this means the signal is real with a 99.9999% probability. The graph at the bottom shows that what has been measured matches a theoretically expected signal from a black hole merger so closely that the similarity is immediately compelling even for a non-scientists.
But more importantly, unlike faster than light neutrinos, we have every reason to believe that gravitational waves exist. There is no new physics required, and the phenomenon is strictly classical, in the sense that General Relativity produces a classical field equation that unlike Quantum Mechanics adheres to physical realism. That is why this discovery does nothing to advance the search for a unification of gravity with the other three forces. The importance of this discovery lies somewhere else, but is no less profound. Sabine Hossenfelder says it best:
Hundreds of millions of years ago, a primitive form of life crawled out of the water on planet Earth and opened their eyes to see, for the first time, the light of the stars. Detecting gravitational waves is a momentous event just like this – it’s the first time we can receive signals that were previously entirely hidden from us, revealing an entirely new layer of reality.
The importance of this really can't be overstated. The universe is a big place and we keep encountering mysterious observations. There is of course the enduring puzzle of dark matter, lesser known may be the fast radio bursts first observed in 2007 that are believed to be the highest energy events known to modern astronomy. Until recently it was believed that some one-off cataclysmic events were the underlying cause, but all these theories had to be thrown out when it was recently observed that these signals can repeat. (The Canadian researcher who published on this recently received the highest Canadian science award, and the CBC has a nice interview with her).
We are a long way off from having good spatial resolution with the current LIGO setup. The next logical step is of course to simply drastically increase the scale of the device, and when it comes to Laser interferometry this can be done on a much grander scale then with other experimental set-ups (e.g. accelerators). The eLISA space based gravitational wave detector project is well underway. And I wouldn't yet count out advanced quantum interferometry as a means to drastically improve the achievable resolution, even if they couldn't beat LIGO to the punch.
After all, it was advanced interferometry that had been driving the hunt for gravitational waves for many decades. One of its pioneers, Heinz Billing, was determined to bring about and witness their discovery, reportedly stating that he refused to die before the discovery was made. The universe was kind to him, so at age 101 he is still around and got his wish.
Last summer I had to ship a crate of maple syrup to Matthias Troyer at the ETHZ in Switzerland. The conditions we had agreed on for our performance bet were so that, at this point, the D-Wave One could not show a clear performance advantage over a conventional, modern CPU running fine-tuned optimization code. The machine held its own, but there weren't any problem classes to point to that really demonstrated massive performance superiority.
The big news to take away from the recent Google/D-Wave performance benchmark is that, with certain problem instances, the D-Wave machine clearly shines. 100 million times better in comparison to a Quantum Monte Carlo Simulation is nothing to sneeze at. This doesn't mean that I would now automatically win my bet with Matthias if we were to repeat it with the D-Wave Two, but it'll make it much more interesting for sure.
One advantage of being hard-pressed to find time for blogging is that once I get around to commenting on recent developments, most other reactions are already in. Matthias provided this excellent write-up, and the former D-Wave critic-in-chief remains in retirement. Scott Aaronson's blog entry on the matter strikes a (comparatively) conciliatory tone. One of his comments explains one of the reason for this change:
"[John Martinis] told me that some of the engineering D-Wave had done (e.g., just figuring out how to integrate hundreds of superconducting qubits while still having lines into them to control the couplings) would be useful to his group. That’s one of the main things that caused me to moderate a bit (while remaining as intolerant as ever of hype)."
Of course, business follows very different rules, more along the Donald Trump rules of attention. Any BS will do as long as it captures audience. Customers are used to these kinds of commercial exaggerations, and so I am always a bit puzzled by the urge to debunk D-Wave "hype". To me it feels almost a bit patronizing. The average Joe is not like Buddy the Elf, the unlikely hero of my family's favorite Christmas movie. When Buddy comes to NYC and sees a diner advertising the world's best coffee, he takes this at face value and goes crazy over it. The average Joe, on the other hand, has been thoroughly desensitized to high tech hype. He knows that neither Google Glasses nor Apple Watches will really change his life forever, nor will he believe Steve Jurvetson that the D-Wave machines will outperform the universe within a couple of years. Steve,on the other hand, does what every good VC business man is supposed to do for a company that he invested in, i.e. create hype. The world has become a virtual bazaar, and your statements have to be outrageous and novel in order to be heard over the noise. What he wants to get across is that the D-Wave machines will grow in performance faster than conventional hardware. Condensing this into Rose's Law is the perfect pitch vehicle for that - hype with a clear purpose.
People like to pick an allegiance and cheer for their "side". It is the narrative that has been dominating the D-Wave story for many years, and it made for easy blogging, but I won't miss it. The hypers gonna hype, the haters gonna hate, but now the nerds should know to trust the published papers.
Max Planck famously quipped that science advances one funeral at a time, because even scientists have a hard time acting completely rationally and adjusting their stances when confronted with new data. This is the 21st century, here's to hoping that the scientific community has lost this kind of rigidity, even while most of humanity remains as tribal as ever.
Back in the day before he re-resigned as D-Wave's chief critic, Scott Aaronson made a well-reasoned argument as to why he thought this academic, and at times vitriolic, scrutiny was warranted. He argued that a failure of D-Wave to deliver a quantum speed-up would set the field back, similar to the AI winter that was triggered by Marvin Minsky's Perceptrons book.
Fortunately, quantum annealers are not perceptrons. For the latter, it can be rigorously proven that single layer perceptrons are not very useful. Ironically, at the time the book was published, multilayered perceptrons, i.e. a concept that is now fundamental to all deep learning algorithms, were already known, but in the ensuing backlash research funding for those also dried up completely. The term "perceptron" became toxic and is now completely extinct.
Could D-Wave be derailed by a proof that shows that quantum annealing could, under no circumstances, deliver a quantum speed-up? To me this seems very unlikely, not only because I expect that no such proof exists, but also because, even if this was the case, there will still be a practical speed-up to be had. If D-Wave manages to double their integration density at the same rapid clip as in the past, then their machines will eventually outperform any classical computing technology in terms of annealing performance. This article (h/t Sol) expands on this point.
So far there is no sign that D-Wave will slow its manic pace. The company recently released its latest chip generation, featuring quantum annealing with an impressive 1000+ qubits (in practice, the number will be smaller, as qubits will be consumed for problem encoding and software EEC). This was followed with a detailed test under the leadership of Catherine McGeoch, and it will be interesting to see what Daniel Lidar, and other researchers with access to D‑Wave machines, will find.
My expectation has been from the get-go that D-Wave will accelerate the development of this emerging industry, and attract more money to the field. It seems to me that this is now playing out.
Intel recently (and finally as Robert Tucci points out) entered the fray with a $50M investment. While this is peanuts for a company of Intel's size, it's an acknowledgement that they can't leave the hardware game to Google, IBM or start-ups such as Rigetti.
On the software side, there's a cottage industry of software start-ups hitching their wagons to the D-Wave engine. Many of these are still in stealth mode, or early stage such as QC Ware, while others already start to receive some well deserved attention.
Other start-ups, like our artiste-qb.net, straddle the various QC hardware approaches. In our case, this comes "out-of-the-box", because our core technology, Quantum Bayesian Networks, as developed by Robert Tucci, is an ideal tool to abstract from the underlying architecture. Another start-up that is similarly architecture agnostic is Cambridge QC. The recent news of this company brings to mind that sometimes reality rather quickly imitates satire. While short of the $1B seed round of this April Fool's spoof, the influx of $50M dollars from the Chile based Grupo Arcano is an enormous amount for a QC software firm, that as far as I know, holds no patents.
Some astoundingly big bets are now being placed in this field.
But this is in a class of it's own. Given the headline and the introductory statement that "a fully classical system behaves like a true quantum computer", it essentially creates the impression that QC research must be pointless. Much later it sneaks in the obvious, that an analog emulation just like one on a regular computer can't possibly scale past 40 qubits due to the exponential growth in required computational resources.
But that's not the most irritating aspect of this article.
Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of classical quantum analog systems. I think they can be very educational, if you know what you are looking at (Spreeuw 1998). The latter paper, is actually quoted by the authors and it is very precise in distinguishing between quantum entanglement and the classical analog. But that's not what their otherwise fine paper posits (La Cour et al. 2015). The authors write:
"What we can say is that, aside from the limits on scale, a classical emulation of a quantum computer is capable of exploiting the same quantum phenomena as that of a true quantum system for solving computational problems."
If it wasn't for the phys.org reporting, I would put this down as sloppy wording that slipped past peer review, but if the authors are correctly quoted, then they indeed labour under the assumption that they faithfully recreated quantum entanglement in their classical analog computer - mistaking the model for the real thing.
It makes for a funny juxtaposition on phys.org though, when filtering by 'quantum physics' news.
The second article refers to a new realization of Wheeler's delayed choice experiment (where the non-local entanglement across space is essentially swapped for one across time).
If one takes Brian La Cour at his word then according to his other paper he suggest that these kind of phenomena should also have a classical analog.
So it's not just hand-waving when he is making this rather outlandish sounding statement with regards to being able to achieve an analog to the violation of Bell's inequality:
"We believe that, by adding an emulation of quantum noise to the signal, our device would be capable of exhibiting this type of [Bell's inequality violating] entanglement as well, as described in another recent publication."
Of course talk is cheap, but if this research group could actually demonstrate this Bell's inequality loophole it certainly could change the conversation.
D‑Wave had to break new ground in many engineering disciplines. One of them was the cooling and shielding technology required to operate their chip.
To this end they are now using ANSYS software, which of course makes for very good marketing for this company (h/t Sol Warda). So good, in fact, that I would hope D‑Wave negotiated a large discount for serving as an ANSYS reference customer.
Any SQUID based quantum computing chip will have similar cooling and shielding requirements, i.e. Google and IBM will have to go through a similar kind of rigorous engineering exercise to productize their approach to quantum computing, even though this approach may look quite different.
Until recently, it would have been easy to forget that IBM is another contender in the ring for SQUID based quantum computing, yet the company's researchers have been working diligently outside the limelight - they last created headlines three years ago. And unlike other quantum computing news, that often only touts marginal improvements, their recent results deserved to be called a break-through, as they improved upon the kind of hardware error correction that Google is betting on.
Obviously, the better your error correction, the more likely you will be able to achieve quantum speed-up when you pursue an annealing architecture like D‑Wave, but IBM is not after yet another annealer. Most articles on the IBM program reports that IBM is into building a "real quantum computer”, and the term clearly originates from within the company, (e.g. this article attributes the term to Scientists at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY). This leaves little doubt about their commitment to universal gate based QC.
The difference in strategy is dramatic. D‑Wave decided to forgo surface code error correction on the chip in order to get a device to the market. Google, on the other hand, decided to snap up the best academic surface code implementation money could buy, and also emphasized speed-to-market by first going for another quantum adiabatic design.
All the while, IBM researchers first diligently worked through the stability of SQUID based qubits . Even now, having achieved the best available error correction, they clearly signaled that they don't consider it good enough for scale-up. It may take yet another three years for them to find the optimal number and configuration of logical qubits that achieves the kind of fidelity they need to then tackle an actual chip.
It is a very methodological engineering approach. Once the smallest building block is perfected, they will have the confidence that they can go for the moonshot. It's also an approach that only a company with very deep pockets can afford, one with a culture that allows for the pursuit of a decades long research program.
Despite the differences, in the end, all SQUID based chips will have to be operated very close to absolute zero. IBM's error correction may eventually give it a leg-up over the competition, but I doubt that standard liquid helium fridge technology will suffice for a chip that implements dozens or hundreds of qubits.
By the time IBM enters the market there will be more early adopters of the D‑Wave and Google chips, and the co-opetition between these two companies may have given birth to an emerging industry standard for the fridge technology. In a sense, this may lower the barriers of entry for new quantum chips if the new entrant can leverage this existing infrastructure. It would probably be a first for IBM to cater to a chip interfacing standard that the company did not help to design.
While tech and business journalists may not (and may possibly never) understand what makes a quantum computer tick, they understand perfectly well that any computing device is just dead weight without software, and that the latter will make the value proposition necessary to create a market for these new machines.
It goes without saying that the resource extraction industry will be among the first to profit from these new techniques. While this industry has an image problem due to its less than stellar environmental track record, there's no denying that anything that drives the rapid and ongoing productization of these technologies is a net positive if that makes them affordable and widely accessible to geophysicists who study the dynamic of active fault lines. Acquiring this kind of big data is the only chance to ever achieve a future when our planet will no longer shock us with its deadly geological force.
The proliferation of social networks seems unstoppable now. Even the big ones you can no longer count on one hand: Facebook, LinkedIn, GooglePlus, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Snapchat - I am so uncool I didn't even know about the latter until very recently. It seems that there has to be a natural saturation point with diminishing marginal return of signing up to yet another one, but apparently we are still far from it.
Recently via LinkedIn I learned about a targeted social network that I happily signed up for, which is quite against my character (i.e. I still don't have a Facebook account).
The aptly named International Quantum Exchange for Innovation is a social network set up by DK Matai with the express purpose of bringing together people of all walks of life anywhere on this globe who are interested in the next wave of the coming Quantum Technology revolution. If you are as much interested in this as I am, then joining this UN of Quantum Technology, as DK puts it, is a no-brainer.
The term 'revolution' is often carelessly thrown around, but in this case I think, when it comes to the new wave of quantum technologies, it is more than justified. After all, the first wave of QM driven technologies powered the second leg of the Industrial Revolution. It started with a bang, in the worst possible manner, when the first nuclear bomb ignited, but the new insights gained led to a plethora of new high tech products.
Quantum physics was instrumental in everything from solar cells, to lasers, to medical imaging (e.g. MRI) and of course, first and foremost, the transistor. As computers became more powerful, Quantum Chemistry coalesced into an actual field, feeding on the ever increasing computational power. Yet Moore's law proved hardly adequate for its insatiable appetite for the compute cycles required by the underlying quantum numerics.
During Richard Feynman's (too short) life span, he was involved in the military as well as civilian application of quantum mechanics, and his famous "there is plenty of room at the bottom" talk can be read as a programmatic outline of the first Quantum Technology revolution. This QT 1.0 wave has almost run its course. We made our way to the bottom, but there we encountered entirely new possibilities by exploiting the essential, counter-intuitive non-localities of quantum mechanics. This takes it to the next step, and again Information Technology is at the fore-front. It is a testament to Feynman's brilliance that he anticipated QT 2.0 as well, when suggesting a quantum simulator for the first time, much along the lines of what D-Wave built.
It is apt and promising that the new wave of quantum technology does not start with a destructive big bang, but an intriguing and controversial black box.
Google changed its site ranking, if a site is not mobile friendly it will now be heavily penalized. I was quite fond of my old design but when running the Google Mobile test it failed miserably. Hence a hasty redesign based on a newer WordPress theme was in order.