Deep within the recesses of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., a small team of researchers is beginning to run applications on a revolutionary machine that could pave the way for a new era of computing.
After delays caused by the partial government shutdown, scientists in NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Division are running applications on the D-Wave Two to probe the possibilities of quantum computing.
NASA’s early experiments with the computer, developed by D-Wave Systems, are geared toward optimizing aeronautics and other processes vital to the agency’s mission, said Rupak Biswas, deputy director of the Exploration Technology Directorate at Ames. But in these primordial days of quantum computing, every experiment will serve as benchmark for where the technology is and where it might go, he added.
“From our perspective, we are trying to get better answers,” Biswas said. “Am I getting the same solution as a classical computer, but faster? Second, if I didn’t get a faster solution, did I get a more accurate one? And third, did I find solutions that a classical computer never found?”
In the next five years, NASA will share access to D-Wave Two as part of a three-way partnership with Google and the Universities Space Research Association. USRA’s team has not yet carried out tests with D-Wave Two, but Google engineers have been busy refining classical computing algorithms to pit the processing capabilities of today’s computers against the D-Wave Two.
NASA’s efforts have been more mission-oriented, but neither NASA nor Google expects to publish research results until early next year.
In traditional computing, data is encoded as either a 1 or a 0, but a quantum computer’s use of quantum mechanical phenomena allows a quantum bit, or qubit, to represent a one, zero or both values simultaneously.
The simultaneous calculation is the key.
Even today’s fastest supercomputers, which crunch trillions or more operations per second, carry out only one operation at a single moment in time. There is no classical computing approach in today’s desktop PCs or supercomputers equivalent to the way the qubit allows information to be processed.
Biswas said NASA’s efforts on the 512-qubit D-Wave Two have concentrated on planning missions, scheduling processes and re-analyzing portions of data collected by the planet-seeking Kepler telescope. In mission planning, NASA might use its quantum computer to come up with the optimal navigation plan for the Mars Curiosity rover, with variables that include various stop points and resource limitations.
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