USC receives first quantum computer

USC on Friday became the first academic institution to house an operational quantum computer system.

The D-Wave One Adiabatic Quantum Computer, the first commercially available quantum computer, will be housed at the USC Viterbi Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Rey.

Professor Daniel Lidar (left) and USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos stand before the new quantum computing system | Photo courtesy of Ziva Santop

Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis Yortsos said the research conducted on the machine will be historic.

“This is merely the first step in a much larger world,” Yortsos said.

Yortsos said the system will break new ground, much like the first commercially available computer in the United States, the Universal Automatic Computer (Univac).

“The D-Wave One Adiabatic Quantum Computer represents not merely the latest ancestor of Univac, but the next big leap — the advent of scalable quantum computing,” Yortsos said. “Truly, D-Wave Systems has created something revolutionary: a 128 qubit quantum chip that augurs the possibility of solving some of the world’s most complex optimization and machine learning problems.”

The $10-million computer was purchased by Lockheed Martin Corporation, a security and information technology company that is the largest provider of IT services, systems integration and training to the U.S. government. USC will work with Lockheed Martin to conduct research on the computer.

Lockheed Martin said in a press release that it hopes to harness the technology to solve relevant problems that are hard to address through established methods in a “cost-effective amount of time.”

Quantum computing has the potential to drastically increase the speed of computer functions. The D-Wave computer’s qubits are able to encode ones and zeros at the same time and place on the chip, whereas traditional computers can only hold one of the digits in a place at one time. Having two bits exist in the same place at the same time, a property called superposition, is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics.

The concept of superposition is often illustrated by a thought experiment Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed in 1935. In the experiment, a cat would be placed in a box that is completely unobservable from the outside, where the cat would eventually be poisoned. Because Schrödinger’s cat is alive when placed in the box but will be dead at some point when it is in the box, an observer can only assume the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Superposition in the D-Wave computer is advanced through temperature manipulation.

The D-Wave system hardware is kept at 20 microKelvin, which is near absolute zero — the coldest possible temperature in the universe. This allows metals to become superconductors by removing their electrical resistance. The system is adiabatic, meaning there is no net heat loss or gain.

Yortsos said the computer will provide a new paradigm in the quest for faster and more secure computing, as the field is in its infancy.

“It wasn’t that long ago that quantum computing was the province of intellectual wonks and theorists,” Yortsos said.

Yortsos said the system would keep USC at the forefront of technological innovations.

“From its pioneering role in the protocols of the Internet, the Domain Naming System — .com, .net, .edu — grid computing, high-performance computing, e-science and artificial intelligence, ISI has been the agent of innovation for many of the greatest breakthroughs of the past four decades,” Yortsos said. “Next year, 2012, ISI will celebrate its 40th anniversary. I am very confident that … this agent has its best innovating still to come.”

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