TOKYO -- Quantum computing, long a topic of theoretical science, is beginning to enter the realm of full-fledged commercial application.
The technology, which boast processing speeds over 100 million times that of conventional computers, is increasingly being adopted by companies to supercharge development of advanced technology.
D-Wave Systems, a Canadian startup located just outside Vancouver, is the producer of the world's first quantum computer available for commercial use. The latest model, the 2000Q, costs $15 million and sits inside a 3-meter-square black box that silently houses the unit.
The computer's chip is chilled at absolute zero, explains Mark Johnson, D-Wave's lead technician. Apart from cooling equipment arranged in a reverse pyramid formation, the rest of the interior is pretty much empty space. Sitting beneath the layers of refrigeration is the quantum processing unit, which is totally different from the central processing units of old.
Moore's Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, says the number of transistors in a chip doubles every two years, but microchips have actually been doubling their processing ability every 18 months.
However, conventional computer chips are said to be approaching a ceiling when it comes to miniaturization, speed and power conservation. "It will be hard to expect further performance-based improvements that will allow makers to recoup development investment," said Akira Minamikawa, director at market research firm IHS Markit in Tokyo.
That could mean a premature end for computer advancement just as AI is starting to penetrate the market. So companies are switching over to quantum computing, which operates on its own set of rules, in order to break out of that box.
From three years to one second
Machine learning used by AI looks for clues in data to make judgments as a substitute for human intelligence, but exact conclusions cannot always be reached with conventional methods. Quantum computers, however, are skilled in optimizing configurations. That has contributed to better results in drug discovery and image recognition. Lockheed Martin has applied quantum computing to developing stealth fighters.
The biggest sign that quantum computing will become a key part of industry can be found in Beijing. There, German automaker Volkswagen analyzed the GPS data of 10,000 taxis and found optimal airport routes that avoid traffic jams for 418 vehicles within a matter of seconds. It would normally take 30 minutes to perform that function.
Google and NASA concluded that D-Wave's quantum computers can analyze data 100 million times faster than other computers. Processing that would take three years and two months could be done in a single second. A U.S. cybersecurity firm was the first buyer of D-Wave's 2000Q, and Google bought one last month.
In Japan, Recruit Communications is rolling out quantum computing this year. The Recruit Holdings web marketing unit reports an overwhelming level of accuracy when it comes to pinpointing internet users based on search histories. The company plans to use the innovation for targeted advertisement.
Nippon Telegraph & Telephone and others are utilizing quantum phenomena to develop computers that act like a brain's network of nerve cells.
In the U.S., IBM announced this May that it developed a quantum computing processor that employs methods distinct from D-Wave's. Even D-Wave customer Google is busy developing its own quantum computing system, recruiting well-known technicians to that end.
Those players, however, still have to overcome some major shortcomings in quantum computing. The processors do not work well if they encounter vibrations or any type of noise, meaning variations in temperature or magnetism. There are also questions of stability if the number of quantum bits contained in a quantum processing unit is increased.