The Church of D-Wave

Are You a BDeliever? dwave_churchgoer Science and religion have a difficult relationship, and sometimes they combine in the most obscure manner, such as when Scientology was conceived.  The latter seems to have lost a lot of its appeal and followers, but it seems that another new religion is poised to grab the mantle.

That is, if one is willing to follow Scott Aaronson’s rationale that believing in the achievability of significant speed-up with D-Wave’s architecture is a matter of faith. Ironically Scott, who is teaching computer science at MIT, made this comment about the same time that the MIT Technology Review named D-Wave to its Top 50 Smartest Companies list. An illustrious selection, that any company would be delighted to be included in. The only quibble I have with this list is that it ranks Elon Musk’s SpaceX before D-Wave, my point being that quantum mechanics is harder than rocket science. After all, with the latter, everybody can decide if your spacecraft made it into orbit or not (classical mechanics is so straightforward).  On the other hand, we still have the ongoing high profile battle over the question of how quantum D-Wave’s machine actually is (since Schroedinger the uncertainty of what’s in a box seems to be a constant in Quantum Mechanics).

Another paper buttresses the company’s claims that there is substantial entanglement present on their chip.  This prompted Prof. Vazirani, who I experienced as a most delightful soft spoken academic when checking out his Quantum Computing MOC, to come out swinging.  The New York Times quotes him as saying:

“What I think is going on here is that they didn’t model the ‘noise’ correctly. (….) One should have a little more respect with the truth.”

In academic parlance these are fighting words.  And so the show goes on.

But I want to take a break from this for a moment, and focus on another question: How did a startup like D-Wave get to this point?  Time magazine front page material, coverage in the New York Times, being named in the same breath as SpaceX.  From a business perspective this is nothing but an amazing success story to have gotten to this point. And to me, the question of what makes successful entrepreneurship is of no less interest than science and technology.

Geordie got closer to having a shot at Olympic gold than most of us, having been an alternate on the Canadian wrestling team at the 1996 Olympic Games, so getting this one may have been bitter sweet.

Flying into Vancouver I imagined Geordie Rose to be a Steve Jobs-like character, about whom it was famously quipped that he was surrounded by his own reality distortion field, an invisible force that made others see the world like he did, and made them buy into his vision. And although I never had the pleasure of meeting Steve Jobs, I think it is safe to say that Geordie is nothing like him. If I had to describe him in one word, I’d say he is quintessentially “Canadian”, in terms of the positive attributes that we typically like to associate with our national character. (Full disclaimer: Technically I am not Canadian yet, just a permanent resident).

Given the amazing success that D-Wave has had, and the awards and accolades that he himself has received, I was impressed with his unassuming demeanor. Hard to imagine Geordie would ever park his car in a handicap spot, as Jobs was fond of doing, to shave a couple minutes off his commute.

D-Wave just moved to a new enlarged premises. In their old building Geordie occupied an interior office without windows. I naturally assumed that he would have upgraded that. So I was surprised to learn that his new workspace still doesn’t have any windows. His explanation was simple, it allows him to be close to his team.

My take away is that visionaries cannot be pigeon-holed, because when talking to Geordie it was quickly obvious that his focus and dedication to making his vision a reality is ironclad, and his excitement is infectious.  So this is one key similarity to Steve Jobs after all, and then there is of course this, which goes without saying:

Great entrepreneurs never do it for the money.
Great entrepreneurs never do it for the money.

Prof. Vazirani must have picked up on D-Wave’s commitment to make Quantum Computing work, as the New York Times also quotes him as saying about D‑Wave that “after talking with them I feel a lot better about them. They are working hard to prove quantum computing.

That Geordie picked an approach which is so abhorred by theorists, I attribute to yet another aspect that, in my mind, marks great entrepreneurship: An almost ruthless pragmatism. Focusing on the less proven quantum annealing on a chip, he managed in just seven years to turn out an entirely new computing platform.  Meanwhile, the advances in superconducting foundry know-how that his company ushered in, will also benefit other approaches, such as the gate based implementation that UCSB’s John Martinis plans to scale up to 1000 qubits within five years.

To me, there is no doubt that the hurry to get something to the market is a net benefit to the entire quantum computing field, as I expect it will attract more private capital. And that is because Quantum Computing is now no longer perceived as something nebulous, something that just may happen 25 years down the road.

Game changers polarize.  So if we pay heed to Scott Aaronson’s rhetorics Geordie clearly has a leg up over Steve Jobs.  Where the latter had a cult following, Geordie’s on his way to having his own religion.  Maybe that’ll explain the following recent exchange on D-Wave’s blog:



(h/t Rolf D. and commenter Copenhagen for pointing me to material for this post.)

23 thoughts on “The Church of D-Wave

  1. Hi Henning: Thanks for having the courage to re-visit the subject of D-Wave one more time. I believe Dr. Vazirani is beginning to soften his stance vis-a-vis D-Wave, just in case they make a “breakthrough” in one class of problems or another. But he has come a long way since he characterized D-Wave computers as “not much more powerful than a cell phone”. I just might INVEST in this company IF they made such a breakthrough!!!.

    1. Sol, as long a D-Wave is around I’ll keep writing about them. After all they are the reason I picked up blogging in the first place.

      And I always enjoy good blog brawls 🙂

    1. Thanks! Your blog is a prime example of how image commentary can enrich a science blog, so I am very happy you like it.

      No family, friends or acquaintances have been included in that one, the silhouette is just random Joe Doe Internet (recycled and claiming artistic license).

  2. Three points of information:

    (1) Umesh told me he was egregiously misquoted; he never said anything like “after talking with them I feel a lot better about them. They are working hard to prove quantum computing.” (One giveaway is that Umesh would never use a sloppy phrase like “prove quantum computing”; he would’ve been specific about WHAT they were trying to prove.) More generally, I can testify from conversations with Umesh over the last few weeks that he remains as skeptical about D-Wave’s claims as ever (indeed, I often find myself DEFENDING D-Wave when talking to him, just to play devil’s-advocate).

    (2) You completely misunderstood the point of the comment you linked to. I wasn’t saying there that “believing in the achievability of significant speed-up with D-Wave’s architecture is a matter of faith” (though it obviously IS a matter of hope/gamble without solid evidence—whether they think it’s a justified gamble or not, I don’t see how anyone could dispute that). Rather, I was expressing amazement at the shamelessness with which you pivoted from one argument to a different, totally incompatible argument: from touting customer testimonials about the “practical benefits” of the D-Wave devices to, when challenged about it, saying that it’s the skeptics’ fault that they keep harping on practical things like speedups, failing to see the devices’ *intrinsic* value even if there’s no practical advantage for anything. I confess I’ve sometimes wished I were capable of that kind of cognitive dissonance; it would make many things in life easier.

    (3) There’s no actual conflict between the SSSV paper and the new paper by Lidar et al. SSSV said that, for RANDOM instances (i.e., the ones that D-Wave itself initially accepted as benchmark hard instances, before the data started going against them), a model that never invokes any entanglement does just fine at reproducing the machine’s behavior, even the specific pattern of successes and failures. That doesn’t prove that there’s no entanglement (even large-scale entanglement, and even for those instances); it just says that the entanglement, if there, plays no obvious role in explaining the machine’s behavior on those instances. And Lidar et al. don’t dispute any of that. What they’ve found is that you can construct other, extremely special and “engineered” instances where the SSSV model no longer explains the machine’s behavior. Which is good to know! But keep in mind that (a) SSSV never suggested that such instances couldn’t exist, (b) the machine seems to remain efficiently classically simulable, using Quantum Monte Carlo, even on the special engineered instances, and (c) even if it weren’t, it’s far from clear that these special instances tell us anything about the scaling behavior. In particular, those instances have spectral gaps that are comparable to the temperature. And at a meeting I recently attended in Aspen, even many people from Google (or who are otherwise “on the fence” / partial to D-Wave) guessed that the “annealing signatures” found in those instances will go away once the gap shrinks, as it certainly will on large hard instances.

    1. (1) That’s what blogs are good for, here the statements from the horses’ mouths comes unfiltered. And frankly, I always suspected that my editorial standards are higher than that of the NYT.

      (2) “I confess I’ve sometimes wished I were capable of that kind of cognitive dissonance; it would make many things in life easier.”

      Well, I think you are 🙂 as I don’t see how we could have watched the same video.

      These customers are all touting the future *potential* benefit of the research that they think the D-Wave machine will facilitate. See, it even says so on the blurb underneath the video: “Quantum computing has potential to solve challenges …”

      I.e. the customers are buying into the idea that the platform will continue to grow in capacity, doubling the number of useable qubits every 16 months as before, and that this will eventually beat out any other approach. And the marketing message is: To take advantage of this future prospect you have to invest now.

      (3) The question if the D-Wave machine can give you proper quantum speed-up is not settled, and you misread my post if you think that I posit that the Lidar et al. paper somehow refutes the SSSV paper. It just moves the research forward (as did the SSSV and Troyer et al. paper).

  3. Nice post. I have been talking to some folks close to D-Wave.

    Their view: pragmatism wins the race.

    Hats off to Geordie Rose and the team.

    At the end of all this people will realise that they were misled by John von Neumann about quantum mechanics. I think, ultimately, that this controversy will settle on the realisation that the projection postulate is wrong headed as physics.

    Entanglement is ubiquitous except there are two kinds. Coherent and incoherent.

    It would seem, to me, that the D-Wave architecture is robust to small amounts of incoherence. In am improved design such noise may actually help the simulated annealing target an energy minimum. Ergo… Think carefully about the physics: what we know; what we don’t know and the possibility that von Neumann measurement theory is plain wrong.

    1. Just realized that I pretty much overlooked that you are also a very successful entrepreneur, and just like Geordie you belong to the yet even more exclusive set of those with a physics Ph.D.

      In the spirit of exploring what makes great entrepreneurs I think you should be my next interview target 🙂

  4. Hi Henning, thanks for the post. It’s nice to hear from Scott once in a while, you keep this up and he might just come out from retirement! (again 😉

    There are people in this world that are pioneer/explorer types and I think this is what best describes Geordie. It’s hard to understand for the average person (let alone scientists) how explorers can take so much risk with little to go on. They sail unknown seas, travel to strange lands, get eaten by cannibals 😉 or fail miserably. But really, all throughout history they’re the ones who make a big difference. Pushing the boundaries to find out what else is out there. It’s not about faith, it’s about having a dream. It’s not about living life as it is but wanting more of it.

    Then there are types who stick to the facts, play it safe, and make sure they don’t make any mistakes as much as possible. Well for these types we know where they end up…in the classroom 😉

    1. Ramsey, completely agree with you characterization of Geordie, but have to argue the assumption that an academic career is risk free. There are many more post-docs than well paying academic job openings, chances to actually end up in a classroom with a steady pay-check aren’t good.

  5. Although the first comment following this article was almost as much fun to read as the article itself, the latter presented an extremely interesting philosophical concept: Science as religion. I think we’ve sort of been here before, historically, but not quite like this.

  6. Hi Henning: I know that you originally came from Germany. And when you come home in the evening from a hard day’s work, it would be nice to relax with something to remind you of the “old country”, namely, one the greatest gifts that Germany & its great artists has given mankind, i, e. GREAT music, such as this from my all-time hero, Beethoven: 5.Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm. I’m not sure if you have ever heard this treatment of the 6th before, and is played by a Canadian!. Enjoy.

    1. Beautiful. Glenn Gould’s expressiveness never ceases to amaze. Makes me wish I could make some more time for practicing my piano repertoire.

  7. Hi Henning: Sorry for pestering with irrelevant things, but they just might give you an idea for one of your future blogs! So here it goes: Here is another Vancouver-based entrepreneurial company called UrtheCast (pronounced “Earth-Cast”), which has just installed two cameras on the ISS. Today, they released this live stream from one of their cameras. Next, they will be streaming down Ultra High Definition videos of the Earth from the ISS that everybody can follow on the Internet. Here is their release of today. Enjoy.

  8. Hi Henning: Here is a recent & very interesting talk from Eric Ladizinsky, co-founder & chief scientist of processor development at D-Wave, at Google Talk about “Evolving Scalable Quantum Computers”. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Sol. Keep it coming. Currently unfortunately too busy with other stuff rather than blogging, but hopefully will find some time over the Eastern weekend – although filing taxes will take precedent 🙁

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