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Digital annealer: A stepping-stone to quantum computing

Kenny MacIver — June 2018
As quantum technology matures towards commercial use, it is vital that organizations start to map out a journey to this next generation of IT, says Andrew Fursman of 1QBit.

After almost four decades of research and development, quantum computing is poised to emerge from the labs. However, there are a number of fundamentally different —and disputed — paths to a quantum IT future.
One is what’s known as the circuit model, where devices are built using the kind of gates that we see in classical computers — an approach favoured by those working towards universal quantum machines. The other main path is known as quantum annealing, which uses the tendency seen in nature for all things to seek a minimum energy state. And it’s an approach highly suited to solving computational optimization problems.

“In the early stages, it has been easier to build these quantum annealers,” says Andrew Fursman, CEO of Vancouver-based 1QB Technologies (1QBit), a quantum computing software specialist. “That’s why you often hear people talking about optimization as the ‘sweet spot’ for quantum computers and how it will harnesses the natural processes of the universe in order to answer these optimization problems.”

While a scalable general-purpose quantum computer may be several years off, quantum developments around annealing are already having a commercial impact. Canadian company, D-Wave Systems, for example, has been selling what are known as adiabatic quantum computers for several years — the latest model boasts 2,000 (physical) qubits. They work in a very different way from circuit-based quantum computers. And, while the maths and science behind them is not widely appreciated, the D-Wave 2000Q systems have been shown to solve optimization problems much faster than classical computers.

It is also possible to simulate the operation of quantum machines in software on a classical computer using quantum annealing. Fujitsu, working with the University of Toronto, has developed the Fujitsu Digital Annealer, which can quickly solve combinatorial optimization problems by implementing  ‘quantum-inspired’ designs on ASIC chip technology.

Fursman is a big fan. “What I love so much about the Fujitsu Digital Annealer is that it makes use of everything we already know about how to build classical computing systems and provides a device that solves the same problems as a quantum annealer. It points the way towards the kind of performance increases we’ll see with quantum computers while allowing customers to get their hands on such annealers so they can understand how to work with a problem that’s very different in terms of the types of inputs and outputs they’re used to,” he says. “Digital annealers are a great first step in this direction.”

The kind of combinatorial optimization problems that both digital annealers and quantum annealers are able to tackle demonstrate the emerging industrial relevance of quantum IT, says Fursman. In logistics that could mean optimizing complex delivery routes; in finance it could mean optimizing the management and performance of investment portfolios. “Any time that you’re asking, ‘how can I get the best possible outcome while using the least number of resources?’ that starts to look like almost every business that exists. Naturally, we always want to look for the optimal way to be able to deliver things.”

There is another big benefit in Fursman’s view. “As well as solving your problem today, by taking advantage of the specialization of an ASIC, you can be learning how to compute in a model that’s accelerated by a completely new paradigm of computing. So it’s win, win.”
Co-creating the quantum-powered business

The time is ripe for IT leaders to work directly with quantum technology companies to ensure the business-relevance of the systems and applications that will ultimately emerge from them in coming years. “It’s not necessarily the case that the people who are building these quantum computers understand what they’ll be used for. So if you’re a CIO in a large organization that will likely be impacted by this technology, the way you will leverage these machines won’t necessarily be understood by someone from a big tech company. After all, they don’t understand your business in the same way that you do.”

The key is genuine co-creation between the people building the machines and the people who are facing the business problems, he argues. “That’s the magic that will ensure the hardware is produced in a way that’s amenable to the problems you’re facing and that, with your [shared] understanding of the problems, will lead to better software and algorithms,” says Fursman.

“That way,” he says, “10 years from now you won’t have someone showing up at your door, saying, ‘I’ve built this amazing machine, it solves a problem that’s very close to the one that you face. Unfortunately it’s irrelevant for you because we haven’t spoken until this point.’

“Bringing together the knowledge of your organization’s business problems, its existing classical computing, and the capabilities and the scaling of quantum computers will ensure that all of the work and all the billions of dollars that are being put into this technology are really there to serve you.”

• Photography: Jens Kristian Balle

First published
June 2018
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About: Andrew Fursman
Before co-founding quantum computing software company 1QB Information Technologies (1QBit) in Vancouver in 2012, Andrew Fursman built his expertise in organizations ranging from start-ups to large institutions. He has studied exponential technologies at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University (where he is now a faculty member) and financial engineering at Stanford. He worked on speech interface technologies at and AOL Time Warner before co-founding and investing in a string of young companies with interests in nano-satellites, networking and cloud IT.

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