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article imageGoogle's quantum computer '100 million times faster' than your PC

By James Walker     Dec 10, 2015 in Technology
Google has developed a working quantum supercomputer that has 100 million times greater performance than a typical desktop machine. D-Wave can compute in a second what a standard desktop would take 10,000 years to do.
Google revealed that D-Wave is now functioning correctly in a press conference today, according to WIRED. The company's first tests of its quantum system ended in failure with the computer not exhibiting any greater performance than a standard machine.
D-Wave is a joint project developed primarily by Google and NASA. Other key investors include Microsoft and IBM, key technology companies interested in helping to develop what could evolve into computing's future.
Quantum computers operate in a very different way than their binary equivalents. It is only possible to express two different values in binary, 0 for "off" and 1 for "on." Qubits — the subatomic particles used by quantum computers — have an additional third state, a "superposition" that is somewhere between 0 and 1. Theoretically, this allows each qubit to represent many values at the same time, giving quantum machines their performance boost over ordinary desktops.
Computers with headline figures as great as D-Wave would give technology firms like Google the ability to develop artificial intelligence systems much more powerful than we have today. Big data crunching would take little longer than making calculations in a spread-sheet and machine learning would be able to process hundreds of thousands of data sources in the blink of an eye.
The technology is still far from being ready for general use though. D-Wave's 1000-qubit processor competed against a single-core conventional chip in a number of tasks and won them all. It was specially optimised for the project though and past results show there's no guarantee quantum computers will offer a performance boost to every scenario. Google's director of engineering, Hartmut Neven, admitted the tests were a "carefully crafted proof-of-concept problem" that allowed the computer to win with a 100-million-fold lead.
Experts have already expressed doubt regarding Google's quoted test results with D-Wave. Many have noted that Google gave D-Wave an immediate head-start by optimising its processor for the tasks before they were run. Ordinary desktop PCs are capable of out-performing D-Wave on some more complex algorithms, suggesting Google's headline figure of a 100 million times speed improvement is misleading and not representative of general quantum computing development.
Quantum computing is still a very long way from becoming widespread. There's only a handful of people in the world who know how to program in terms of qubits and currently only a small selection of calculations can be expressed in quantum mechanics. With more development, the technology could evolve into a serious way to solve big societal problems though, providing the world with instant data analysis at a scale never seen before.
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