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Gary Mason

Quantum computing may lead to a quantum Canadian leap Add to ...

It seems like such an unlikely spot to discover groundbreaking work: a nondescript building, on a hard-to-find street, in an indistinguishable high-tech park in suburban Burnaby, B.C.

But there it is, nonetheless, the corporate headquarters of D-Wave Systems, a Canadian-controlled company that's hoping to change the world. But trumpeting D-Wave's lofty aspirations is far easier than explaining what the company actually does. So bear with me.

D-Wave is pioneering a new high-performance computer that uses the laws of quantum mechanics. In theory, one can dramatically reduce the time and memory requirements for computation by harnessing and leveraging the mysterious properties around quantum physics.

Not to overstate it, but I think we have the potential to be the crown jewel of Canadian technology.

This is done by using superconducting metals instead of the semiconductors found in traditional computers. These processors have to be operated at ultra-low temperatures in a magnetic vacuum. At D-Wave, refrigerators aim to bring the temperature down to nearly 0 degrees Kelvin - or minus 273.15 Celsius.

"And this is where the magic takes place," says Vern Brownell, president and CEO of D-Wave.

The idea of quantum mechanics has been around for a hundred years. But to this point, no one has converted the theory into a commercially viable product. D-Wave believes it has and, if all goes well, it will be shipping out a handful of its first-generation computers this year.

For the layperson, the process involved in quantum computing shouldn't be as important as the outcome. What the quantum computer has the potential to do is solve extremely complex problems at speeds not previously known to man, puzzles that a football-field-sized bank of traditional computers would not be able to disentangle.

The best analogy I've seen to explain quantum computing goes something like this: A person hides a ball in a cabinet with a million drawers. How many drawers do you have to open before you find the ball? You might get lucky and find it in the first drawer you open. Or you may not find it until you've opened the last one. But, on average, it will take a person half a million peeks to find the ball. A quantum computer can perform the same search by looking into only 1,000 drawers.

Mr. Brownell believes that the computational powers of the quantum computer will be able to help find cures for diseases such as cancer. Right now, D-Wave's computer is being used by scientists at Harvard University to explore protein permutations.

"This is potentially world-changing stuff," Mr. Brownell says. In December, the company did 500,000 calculations for Google over the Internet - proof, Mr. Brownell suggests, that D-Wave has developed a quantum computer.

Not surprisingly, there is some skepticism in the scientific community. But to get into the complexities of that argument would be even more difficult than explaining quantum computing itself. Suffice to say it revolves around the question of whether D-Wave's computer is achieving a quantum state. Mr. Brownell says recent results, including the company's work with Google, have converted many of the naysayers.

What's almost as exciting as the work D-Wave is doing, though, is the fact that it's being done in Canada. And it's being done with help from the federal government.

Governments around the world are twigging to the fact that the countries that will own the 21st century are the ones that innovate their way to the top. What D-Wave is doing is the epitome of growing a big idea. And it might not have been able to do it without government help.

Venture capital financing is much harder to come by in Canada than it is in the United States. So it puts our start-ups at a disadvantage. And this is why it's so important for Ottawa to step into that funding void.

D-Wave has 55 employees; more than 40 of them are some of the world's top scientists and engineers in the realm of quantum physics. The company hopes to at least triple its work force within five years.

"Not to overstate it," says Mr. Brownell, "but I think we have the potential to be the crown jewel of Canadian technology. And I think the government deserves credit for offering us some support. I'd like to see it do more on a wider scale."

And it must if Canada hopes to take a quantum leap over the competition.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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