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Quantum computing uses strange subatomic behavior to exponentially speed up processing. It could be a revolution, or it could be wishful thinking
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 lightyears. 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 –459.6°F, almost 2° colder than the Boomerang Nebula.
The D-Wave Two is an unusual computer, and D-Wave is an unusual company. It’s small, and it 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.