Tag Archives: Umesh Vazirani

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.)

So You Want to Learn About Quantum Computing?

“Students will learn by inhabiting an alternate history where Alan Turing and Richard Feynman meet during World War II and must invent quantum computers to defeat Nazi Germany. As a final project, they will get to program a D-Wave One machine and interpret its results.”

If you are based in Seattle then you want to keep an eye out for when Paul Pham next teaches the Quantum Computing for Beginners course that follows the exciting narrative outlined above.

For everybody else, there is EdX‘s CS191x Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation course.  I very much hope this course will a be a regular offering.  Although it lacks the unique dramatic arche of P.Pham’s story line this course is nevertheless thoroughly enjoyable.

When I signed up for this course, I didn’t know what to expect.  Mostly, I decided to check it out because I was curious to see how the subject would be taught, and because I wanted to experience how well a web-based platform could support academic teaching.

This course fell during an extremely busy time, not only because of a large professional work load, but also because the deteriorating health of my father required me to fly twice from Toronto to my parents in Germany.  Despite this, the time required for this course proved to be entirely manageable.  If you have an advanced degree in math, physics or engineering, and want to learn about Quantum Computing, you shouldn’t shy away from taking this course as long as you have an hour to spare each week.  It helps that you can accelerate the video lectures to 1 1/2 normal speed (although this made Prof. Umesh Vazirani sound a bit like he inhaled helium).

Prof. Vazirani is a very competent presenter, and you can tell that a lot of thought went into how to approach the subject, i.e. how to ease into the strangeness of Quantum Mechanics for those who are new to it. I was suspicious of the claim made at the outset, that the required mathematics would be introduced and developed as needed during the course, but it seems to me that this was executed quite well. (Having been already familiar with the required math, I don’t really know if it’ll work for somebody completely new to it, but it seems to me that indeed the only pre-requisite required was a familiarity with linear algebra).

It is interesting to see discussions posted by individuals who took the course and were apparently subjected to QM for the first time.  One such thread started this way:

“I got 100. It was really a fun. Did I understand anything? I would say I understood nothing.”

To me this illuminates the fact that you simply cannot avoid the discussion of the interpretation of quantum mechanics.  Obviously this subject is still very contentious, and Prof. Vazirani touched on it when discussing the Bell inequalities in a very concise and easy to understand manner.  Yet, I think judging from the confusion of these ‘straight A’ students there needs to be more of it.  It is not enough to assert that Einstein probably would have reconsidered his stance if he knew about these results.  Yes, he would have given up on a conventional local hidden variable approach, but I am quite certain his preference would have then shifted to finding a topological non-local field theory.

Of course, there is only so much that can be covered given the course’s duration. Other aspects there were missing: Quantum Error Correction, Topological and Adiabatic Quantum Computing and especially Quantum Annealing.  The latter was probably the most glaring omission, since this is the only technology in this space that is already commercially available.

Generally, I found that everything that was covered, was covered very well.  For instance, if you ever wondered how exactly Grover’s and Shor’s algorithms work, you will have learned this after taking the course. I especially found the homework assignments wonderful brain teasers that helped me take my mind off of more worrisome issues at hand.  I think I will miss them. They were comprised of well thought out exercises, and as with any science course, it is really the exercises that help you understand and learn the material.

On the other hand, the assignments and exams also highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the technology underlying the courseware.  Generally, entering formulas worked fine, but sometimes the solver was acting up and it wasn’t always entirely clear why (i.e. how many digits were required when giving a numerical answer, or certain algebraically equivalent terms were not recognized properly).  While this presented the occasional obstacle, on the upside you get the immediate gratification of instance feedback and a very nice progress tracking that allows you to see exactly how you are doing. The following is a screenshot of my final tally. The final fell during a week in which I was especially hard pressed for time, and so I slacked off, just guesstimating the last couple of answers (with mixed results).  In comparison to a conventional class, knowing exactly when you have already achieved a passing score via the tracking graph makes this a risk- and stress-free strategy.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 11.56.31 AMA common criticism of online learning in comparison to the established ways of doing things is the missing classroom experience and interaction with the professor and teaching staff.  To counter this, discussion boards were linked to all assignments, and discussion of the taught material was encouraged.  Unfortunately, since my time was at a premium I couldn’t participate as much as I would have liked, but I was positively surprised with how responsive the teaching assistants answered questions that were put to them (even over the weekends).

This is all the more impressive given the numbers of students that were enrolled in this course:

The geographic reach was no less impressive:

Having being sceptical going into this, I’ve since become a convert.  Just as Khan Academy is revolutionizing the K12 education, EdX and similar platforms like Cousera represent the future for academic teaching.