I think the recent musings around the blogosphere and beyond are completely missing a huge and fundamental point about why building AQC and AQO-based machines will be not only useful, but something that we will wonder how we lived without. I’m not going to talk about the specifics of implementing superconducting technology for cool applications (I can defer that to subsequent posts). Here I just want to explain a little about why we should do it, and how the main hurdle to progressing such technology is nothing to do with our ability to build and understand the technology itself. In fact, it is a rather sad story.
Let’s think for a second: Do we really have the right computational substrates for realising concepts such as highly connected neural networks, and thinking machines? Is the Von Neumann architecture really the best way to support such things? We are currently solving the problem of simulating intelligent systems by throwing more and more computational power at them. Though there’s something very odd about this, we have little choice, as we have become very good at designing processors that behave in a particular way, that talk to memory in a particular way, and that have a small number of cores. The problem with the commonly used architectures is that they just cannot embed things like neural nets, and other highly parallel structures, very efficiently.
Could adiabatic quantum processors be used for neural net and highly parallel processing purposes? Of course! The architectures are very compatible. AQO processors are very similar to Boltzmann machines, which underlie the operation of way many pattern-recognising systems, such as our own brain. There are other delicious fruits of superconducting logic, for example the ease with which we can implement reversible logic, and the exceedingly low power dissipation of such circuits. These systems also exhibit macroscopic quantum effects, which may be a great resource in computation, or it may not. But even if it does not, we should not ignore the fact that actually building such machines is the only way to answer this, and many other questions.
I think that superconducting processors are offering us a wonderful gift here, and yet we refuse to take advantage of it. Why? The reasons are a little hard to stomach.
It seems that while we’d rather just get going building some cool things, we end up spending a large proportion of our time and effort debating issues like whether or not quantum computers can solve NP-Complete problems in polynomial time. What?! I hear you say. My answer: Exactly. Obscure as they are, these questions are the most important thing in the world to a vanishingly small fraction of the population. Yet these seemingly lofty theoretical debates are casting a shadow over the use of superconducting QC architectures in every area of research, including things like the novel implementations of hardware-based neural nets, which may prove to be an even more fruitful avenue than optimization.
It will take a large amount of financing to commercialize general purpose superconducting processors, and an unimaginably large effort on behalf of the scientific researchers and engineers who devote their time to trying to progress this technology. The step from fundamental research to commercialisation cannot and will not work in an academic environment. Why? Because in order to fabricate integrated circuits of any kind you need investments of hundreds of millions of dollars into foundries. Robust and scalable technologies can only be realised in an industrial setting. Sure, small scale systems can be realised in many labs, but there are no industrial uses for devices produced in this setting: Anything that they demonstrate can be outperformed with a standard computing system. And it will stay that way until we realise that we need to take a risk as a society and really invest now in a technology of the future. I’ve seen distressing things happening at RSFQ roadmapping meetings. The conclusion of the roadmapping somewhat tragically boils down to ‘make another roadmap’ – because there are no applications beyond a few incredibly specialised circuits that can be realised within the scope of government research grants (~$10K-5M. Oh and by the way they aren’t very reproducible either). There is no funding on the necessary scale, and therefore whatever money is put into this distributed and broken field rather swiftly evaporates, even though if considered cumulatively it may have been enough to get a single, well focused effort going.
So, my plea to the academic world is to realise that there comes a point where quarrelling over things should be secondary to our solidarity as a community who really want to see something achieved. I’d rather try and fail than sit smugly in my ivory tower proclaiming that something is 20, or 50 years away (read – therefore not my problem guys!) Day after day people (with little or no knowledge in the field) exclaim that these things will never work, you are not building anything useful, your results are fraudulent, your devices are vapour-ware….etc etc.
This is more than cautious scientific scepticism, this is sheer hatred. It seems very unusual, and from my point of view, very detrimental to the entire field. I’d first advise such people to read some of our peer-reviewed papers to get their facts straight. I’d then say the following:
If those working in the fields of superconducting electronics, flux qubits, and quantum information really cared about the future of a technology that they had helped show had huge theoretical promise, they should rally along with us rather than spitefully burning their own bridges. As a community, we should promote the potential of our research and try to convince whoever needs convincing that these endeavours, these ‘Manhattan’ style projects are the only way in which we can bring disruptive technologies to fruition. And even if such projects fail, even if there is no other possible spin off that comes out of them, think about this: Such projects cost about the same amount as a couple of ICBMs. I know which I’d rather have more of in this world.