The Quantum Quest for a Revolutionary Computer

Quantum computing uses strange subatomic behavior to exponentially speed up processing. It could be a revolution, or it could be wishful thinking

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Photograph by Gregg Segal for TIME

For years astronomers have believed that the coldest place in the universe is a massive gas cloud 5,000 light-years from Earth called the Boomerang Nebula, where the temperature hovers at around -458°F, just a whisker above absolute zero. But as it turns out, the scientists have been off by about 5,000 light-years. The coldest place in the universe is actually in a small city directly east of Vancouver called Burnaby.

Burnaby is the headquarters of a computer firm called D-Wave. Its flagship product, the D-Wave Two, of which there are five in existence, is a black box 10 ft. high. Inside is a cylindrical cooling apparatus containing a niobium computer chip that's been chilled to around 20 millikelvins, which, in case you're not used to measuring temperature in millikelvins, is about -459.6°F, almost 2° colder than the Boomerang Nebula. By comparison, interstellar space is about 80 times hotter.

The D-Wave Two is an unusual computer, and D-Wave is an unusual company. It's small, just 114 people, and its location puts it well outside the swim of Silicon Valley. But its investors include the storied Menlo Park, Calif., venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which funded Skype and Tesla Motors. It's also backed by famously prescient Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and an outfit called In-Q-Tel, better known as the high-tech investment arm of the CIA. Likewise, D-Wave has very few customers, but they're blue-chip: they include the defense contractor Lockheed Martin; a computing lab that's hosted by NASA and largely funded by Google; and a U.S. intelligence agency that D-Wave executives decline to name.

The reason D-Wave has so few customers is that it makes a new type of computer called a quantum computer that's so radical and strange, people are still trying to figure out what it's for and how to use it. It could represent an enormous new source of computing power--it has the potential to solve problems that would take conventional computers centuries, with revolutionary consequences for fields ranging from cryptography to nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals to artificial intelligence.

That's the theory, anyway. Some critics, many of them bearing Ph.D.s and significant academic reputations, think D-Wave's machines aren't quantum computers at all. But D-Wave's customers buy them anyway, for around $10 million a pop, because if they're the real deal they could be the biggest leap forward since the invention of the microprocessor.

In a sense, quantum computing represents the marriage of two of the great scientific undertakings of the 20th century, quantum physics and digital computing. Quantum physics arose from the shortcomings of classical physics: although it had stood for centuries as definitive, by the turn of the 20th century it was painfully apparent that there are physical phenomena that classical physics fails dismally to explain. So brilliant physicists--including Max Planck and Albert Einstein--began working out a new set of rules to cover the exceptions, specifically to describe the action of subatomic particles like photons and electrons.

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