An exercise in positive spin.
The English language is astoundingly malleable. It feels almost as if it was tailor made for marketing spin. I noticed this long ago (feels like a lifetime) when working in a position that required me to sell software. Positioning products was much easier when I spoke English. Mind you, I never told a blatant lie, but I certainly spun the facts to put our product in the best light, and if a customer committed I’d do my darnedest to deliver the value that I promised. The kind of customers I dealt with were of course aware of this dance, and perfectly capable of performing their due diligence. From their perspective, in the end, it is always about buying into the vision, knowing full well that a cutting edge technology, one that will give a real competitive benefit, will of course be too new to be without risk.
During the courting of the customers, any sales person worth their salt will do anything to make the product look as good as possible. One aspect of this is of course to stress positive things that others are saying about your offerings.
To accomplish this, selective quoting can come in very handy. For instance, after reviewing the latest pre-print paper that looks at D-Wave’s 503 qubit chip performance, Scott Aaronson stepped down for the second time as chief D-Wave critic. In the blog post where he announced this, he also observed that on “the ~10% of instances on which the D-Wave machine does best, (…) the machine does do slightly better (…) than simulated annealing”.
This puts in words what the following picture shows in much more detail.
Now, if you don’t click through to Scott’s actual blog post. you may take away that he actually changed his stance. But of course he hasn’t. You can look at the above picture and think the glass is ninety percent empty or you could proclaim it is ten percent full.
The latter may sound hopelessly optimistic, but let’s contemplate what we are actually comparing. Current computer chips are the end product of half a century highly focused R&D, with billions of dollars poured into developing them. Yet, we know we are getting to the end of the line of Moore’s law. Leak currents already are a real problem, and the writing is on the wall that we are getting ever closer to the point where the current technology will no longer allow for tighter chip structures.
On the other hand, the D-Wave chip doesn’t use transistors. It is an entirety different approach to computing, as profoundly different as the analog computers of yore.
The integration density of a chip is usually classified by the length of the silicon channel between the source and drain terminals in its field effect transistors (e.g. 25nm). This measure obviously doesn’t apply to D-Wave, but the quantum chip integration density isn’t even close to that. With the ridiculously low number of about 500 qubits on D-Wave’s chip, which was developed on a shoestring budget when compared to the likes of Intel or IBM, the machine still manages to hold its own against a modern CPU.
Yes, this is not a universal gate-based quantum computer, and the NSA won’t warm up to it because it cannot implement Shore’s algorithm, nor is there a compelling theoretical reason that you can achieve a quantum speed-up with this architecture. What it is, though, is a completely new way to do practical computing using circuit structures that leave plenty of room at the bottom. In a sense, it is resetting the clock to when Feynman delivered his famous and prophetic talk on the potentials of miniaturization. Which is why from a practical standpoint I fully expect to see a D-Wave chip eventually unambiguously outperform a classical CPU.
On the other hand, if you look at this through the prism of complexity theory none of this matters, only proof of actual quantum speed-up does.
Scott compares the quantum computing skirmishes he entertains with D-Wave to the American Civil war.
If the D-Wave debate were the American Civil War, then my role would be that of the frothy-mouthed abolitionist pamphleteer
Although clearly tongue in cheek, this comparison still doesn’t sit well with me. Fortunately, in this war, nobody will lose life or limb. The worst that could happen is a bruised ego, yet if we have to stick to this metaphor, I don’t see this as Gettysburg 1863 but the town of Sandwitch 1812.
Much more will be written on this paper. Once it has fully passed peer review and been published, I will also be finally able to reveal my betting partner. But in the meantime there a Google+ meeting scheduled that will allow for more discussion (h/t Mike).
Without careful reading of the paper a casual observer may come away with the impression that this test essentially just pitted hardware against hardware. Nothing could be further from the truth, some considerable effort had to go into constructing impressive classical algorithms to beat the D-Wave machine on its own turf. This Google Quantum AI lab post elaborates on this (h/t Robert R. Tucci).