Confirmed, finally: D-Wave quantum computer is sometimes sluggish

The D-Wave Two quantum computer clocks in no faster than a standard PC, but those already well-known results still leave us scratching our heads over speed testing.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read

Jeremy Hilton, D-Wave's vice president of processor development, with one of the company's quantum computers. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

D-Wave Systems, the leading manufacturer of the world's first commercially available quantum computers, is the most well funded and far along player in the quantum chip race, but hasn't yet succeeded in convincing scientists that its machines are successfully achieving quantum speedup. In other words, we're not sure that its product is speedier than traditional, silicon-based machines.

In fact, in certain situations, the $15 million D-Wave Two is still no faster than the computer on your desk right now.

A research team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich reports that there is still a lack of definitive evidence that the D-Wave Two can perform functions any faster than traditional machines. The results of the test were published in the journal Science Thursday, though the work of head physicist Matthias Troyer has been widely circulated since January because the paper was available in pre-print.

"Using random spin glass instances as a benchmark, we find no evidence of quantum speedup when the entire data set is considered, and obtain inconclusive results when comparing subsets of instances on an instance-by-instance basis," Troyer, a physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, wrote.

Quantum speedup is the process by which a computer not based on silicon -- D-Wave uses tiny liquid helium-cooled loops of niobium for its computers -- can bypass traditional computational limits through the quirky, occasionally unexplainable weirdness of quantum mechanics. While binary computers are restricted to math-based computations using bits that flip between 1 and 0, quantum computers hijack properties like entanglement and superposition using quantum bits, or qubits, that exist as 1 and 0 simultaneously, theoretically amping up the calculation speed exponentially.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

The Zurich tech is yet another conflicting assessment of D-Wave's hardware -- and runs counter to the results touted by D-Wave itself, as well as Google. The search giant last year established its Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab in a partnership with the NASA Ames Research Center and Universities Space Research Association. The goal is to use quantum computations to unearth new ways of breaking through the computation walls currently plaguing the progress of algorithmic AI and machine learning. Google is using D-Wave as its primary product.

Google and NASA celebrated the D-Wave Two back in January with test results of its own showcasing the D-Wave's quantum speedup clocking in at 35,500 times faster than off-the-shelf optimization solvers. But Google was quick to point out, as Troyer laid out in the Science article, that there is no clear cut way of testing quantum computation because we don't really know how to calculate, or even detect, quantum speedup, let alone set a standard for benchmarking.

"While this is an interesting baseline, these competitors are general-purpose solvers. You can create much tougher classical competition by writing highly optimized code that accounts for the sparse connectivity structure of the current D-Wave chip," Google admitted in a blog post concerning the results.