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Geordie Rose, founder of D-Wave Systems Inc., standing in front of the D-WaveOne Quantum Computer.
Geordie Rose, founder of D-Wave Systems Inc., standing in front of the D-WaveOne Quantum Computer.

Canada Competes

The black box that could change the world Add to ...

As Geordie Rose points out, you can’t have a conversation with your laptop. “It’s worth stopping and thinking about why that is,” says the founder and chief technology officer of D-Wave Systems Inc., which sells what it says is the first commercial quantum computer.

Part of the reason is that conversation is nonlinear, so such a feat would require fairly sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI).

“With these types of [quantum] computers, there’s a very clear path toward resolving that problem,” says Dr. Rose in a boardroom at D-Wave’s modest headquarters in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, B.C. He’s referring to the fact that quantum computing promises to get computers nearer to the kind of complex processing the human brain can do and that AI hasn’t yet been able to replicate. This nascent technology can handle information not just in binary format (zeros or ones) but harness the power of quantum mechanics to deploy zeros and ones at the same time. It has the potential to be millions of times more powerful than today’s supercomputers, solving complex problems in minutes that currently would take years.

“All we need is more hardware,” Dr. Rose says.

In the development lab just across the hall, D-Wave has plenty of hardware on display. One corner of the cluttered space contains four of its supercooled systems, including a new model packaged for sale in a three-metre-tall black box that serves as a shielded room to house the computer.

Although it has detractors, D-Wave is a world leader. No other company has come close to building a similar machine, let alone sold one. Quantum computing could spawn a new industry as big as the conventional silicon-based computer business, Dr. Rose and other proponents say. D-Wave owes much of its success to an innovative early decision to outsource research and development.

Soon after the company launched in 1999, it created an international research network that tapped some of the world’s top experts in quantum computing. This exercise helped D-Wave quickly determine what kind of quantum machine to build so it could make a product. It also locked down patents that puts would-be rivals at a big disadvantage.

Not everyone thinks D-Wave is the real deal. Since it unveiled its first working computer in 2007, the 72-employee Canadian company has faced skepticism from purists, who say the D-Wave system is a pale imitation whose circuitry doesn’t obey the laws of quantum physics. In its defence, D-Wave cites a 2011 paper in the reputable scientific journal Nature as proof that quantum properties are in play.

And as an entrepreneur, Dr. Rose has support where it counts. Investors, including prominent U.S. venture capital firms, have staked $130-million on the Montreal-raised theoretical physicist’s big idea. D-Wave is beginning to attract paying customers, too. In 2010 it sold its first system, to aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin. And last month it closed $30-million in equity financing from two big names: Bezos Expeditions, a venture capital shop established by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos; and In-Q-Tel, which sources technology for U.S. intelligence agencies.

“They, a decade ago and today, are the only company trying to make a quantum computer,” says venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, managing director at Menlo Park, Calif.-based Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a D-Wave investor since 2003.

The company could be on the verge of unleashing vast computing power. Quantum computers handle information in a fundamentally different way than so-called classical computers. A D-Wave processor doubles in power every time its developers add a quantum bit, or qubit, a basic building block that is the equivalent of transistors in classical silicon chips. As it prepares to launch a 512-qubit product before the end of 2012, the company has proven that it can roughly double the number of qubits every year.

“A quantum computer is on a completely different scaling curve, where once it passes traditional computers, they can never catch up,” says Mr. Jurvetson, who sits on D-Wave’s board. “That is just unprecedented in the technology business.”

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