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10/5/2012
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Jeff Bezos, U.S. Intelligence Invest In Quantum Computing

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and In-Q-Tel have invested in D-Wave Systems, a company marketing what it calls the first commercial quantum computer.

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Amazon founder and erstwhile investor Jeff Bezos and the U.S. intelligence community are among those betting that quantum computing will lead to revolutionary new computing power. Quantum computing company D-Wave announced a $30 million round of funding on Thursday that includes investments by Bezos' Bezos Expeditions and U.S. intelligence community venture arm In-Q-Tel.

D-Wave, founded in 1999, last year announced the D-Wave One, which the company has called "the first commercially available quantum computer." The company's customers include Lockheed Martin, and Google researchers are among those who have used D-Wave computers. Additional investors in D-Wave include Goldman Sachs and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, among others. In a press release, D-Wave said that it will use the funds to "augment commercial operations and further increase capabilities to provide solutions to customers."

The company's technology and claims to have created a quantum computer have been subject to skepticism from some quantum computing researchers over the years, including theoretical quantum computer scientist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty member Scott Aaronson.

[ Another recent In-Q-Tel investment: database-as-a-service for Web and mobile apps. Read more at Intelligence Venture Firm Backs Cloud Database Startup. ]

Unlike traditional computers, quantum computers don't require transistors or the use of bits that are represented either as zero or one, the on or off states. Quantum computing relies on the laws of quantum mechanics and uses physical particles known as quantum bits, or "qubits," that don't have to be zero or one, but can be both zero and one at the same time, and everything in between. The mixed state also leads to much more firepower, despite the computers having many fewer qubits than traditional computers have bits: D-Wave One was initially released with a 128-qubit chipset.

That mixed state will theoretically allow significantly more simultaneous processing power than traditional computers are capable of, enabling quantum computers to solve computational challenges that today's computers can't resolve, or solving them much more quickly--particularly in areas like modeling the behavior of atomic particles and code-breaking. Harvard University researchers announced in August that they had used a D-Wave One computer to model protein folding.

The intelligence community sees an opportunity to improve its analyses as well. "Our intelligence community customers have many complex problems that tax classical computing architecture," Robert Ames, VP of information and communication technologies at In-Q-Tel, said in a press release. "We believe our customers can benefit from the promise of quantum computing, and this investment in D-Wave is a first step in that direction."

Despite the promise, today's quantum computers are finicky, unreliable, and challenging to build. They are sensitive to electromagnetic radiation, temperature, and other factors, requiring sensitive electronics, superconductors, and extremely low temperatures to operate.

D-Wave is just one of many organizations working on quantum computing. IBM Research has a sizable quantum computing group, and quantum computing researchers are also spread through academia and government research organizations like the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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