Spin-off seeks quantum leap

Can computers get any faster? A UBC Physics graduate is working on it

by Andy Poon staff writer

A 20-something chap has just picked up his new PC and is driving home with it in the front seat of his convertible. One arm is slung lovingly over the box. He drives by a billboard that heralds the model he has as the latest, fastest thing in computing land. Big smile.

One problem--workers are just then covering up the poster with another that shows there is now a faster model available. The smile quickly disappears from our guy's face.

That television ad depicts a scenario that people know all too well, but Geordie Rose can see a future when it will no longer happen. Maybe by 2012.

That's because the size of transistors on computer chips will have become as small as they can get physically.

"That's extremely bad for chip manufacturers because it will become very difficult to increase the speed of computers," says the UBC Physics doctoral graduate. "If they stop producing a faster chip, there isn't a reason for you to go out and buy a faster computer."

But Rose isn't about to let that happen. His UBC spin-off company is researching how to use a new type of "quantum" transistor to process and store information.

As co-founder and president of D-Wave Systems Inc., he is working on developing an integrated circuit that will operate using the laws of the microscopic world in a so-called quantum computer that could crunch numbers many billion times faster than even the fastest supercomputers built using current technologies.

Instead of representing binary code--the 1's and 0's that computer chips use to represent data--in regular transistors, quantum computers will use specially designed transistors called quantum bits, or qubits, to do the same thing.

One major difference though--a qubit can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. That opens up a new realm of possibilities for computing with one main benefit being a dramatic increase in computing speed.

The first practical applications of quantum computers will likely be in genomics and bio-informatics--the use of information technology in identifying genes. An understanding of the building blocks of life and the mechanisms of disease could be worth billions to the biotech industry.

"I believe that quantum computing is at the state now that regular computing was about 40 years ago when Intel was born," Rose says. "It is also the most profound and difficult technical project that mankind has ever embarked on."

If D-Wave succeeds, it would hit computing like a tsunami. Companies such as IBM, NEC, NTT, Xerox and Hewlett-Packard are among those currently devoting resources towards quantum computing.