“I've been doing combative stuff since I was born,” says Geordie Rose, leaning back in a chair in his small, windowless office in Burnaby, Canada, as he describes how he has spent most of his life making things difficult for himself. Until his early 20s, that meant an obsession with wrestling — the sport that, he claims, provides the least reward for the most work. More recently, says Rose, now 41, “that's been D-Wave in a nutshell: an unbearable amount of pain and very little recognition”.
The problem of lack of recognition is fast disappearing for D-Wave, the world's first and so far only company making quantum computers. After initial disbelief and ridicule from the research community, Rose and his firm are now being taken more seriously — not least by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, which bought one of D-Wave's computers in 2011 for about US$10 million, and Internet behemoth Google, which acquired one in May.
But the pain has been real — much of it, critics would argue, brought on by Rose himself. In 2007, his company announced its first working computer with a showy public demonstration at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. By the current standards of quantum computing — which in theory offers huge advances in computing power — the device's performance was astonishing. Here was a prototype searching a database for molecules similar to a given drug and solving a sudoku puzzle, while the best machines built using standard quantum approaches could at most break down the number 21 into its factors.
Skeptics bristled at the 'science by press conference' tone of the introduction, and wondered whether the D-Wave device wasn't just a classical computer disguised as a quantum one. “This company from Canada popped out of nowhere and announced it had quantum chips,” says Colin Williams, who published one of the first texts on quantum computing in 1999, and who joined D-Wave last year as business-development director. “The academic world thought they must be crazy.”
Today, those criticisms have been quietened to some degree by the release of more details about D-Wave's technology. But they have been replaced by subtler questions: even if the D-Wave computer is harnessing quantum powers, is it really faster or better than a conventional computer? Will it ultimately crack problems that currently take computers decades or more to solve? Or will its capabilities hit a wall?
When Rose founded D-Wave in 1999, he had an engineering degree, a few years' progress towards a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver — and no idea how to build a quantum computer. He did have inspiration, from a class on entrepreneurship that he had taken with Haig Farris, one of Canada's best-known technology venture capitalists. Business, says Rose, “appealed to me as being harder than physics or math. There's no prescription for making people do what you want.”
Williams' then-new textbook helped to convince Rose that quantum computing would make a suitable target for a new venture. A check for Can$4,059.50 (US$3,991) from Farris let him buy a laptop and printer to produce a business proposal. By the early 2000s, D-Wave had attracted millions of dollars in capital, which Rose invested in 15 different research groups to look for the best technology to pursue. “I was like an evangelist, pitching the vision” of a quantum computer, he says.
At the heart of that vision was quantum computing's promise to solve otherwise-intractable problems by drastically reducing the time required to find an answer. The quintessential example is factorizing: like splitting 21 into 3 × 7, but with numbers hundreds of digits long. That is the basis of the encryption algorithms widely used to protect digital data. Encryption security rests on the fact that conventional computers have to look at every possible factor in turn — a process that takes exponentially longer as the numbers get bigger.