Use Whatever Works, Even 'Alleged' Quantum Computing Algorithms -- Then Publicize It

from the sufficiently-advanced-technology-(or-magic) dept

When faced with really hard computational challenges, throwing more and more hardware at the problem can be a Sisyphean task. So often, the best answers to tough problems turn out to be solutions that are simply "good enough" to work. But there's always demand for better -- as well as a desire to make creative solutions sound cool and interesting. Some research groups promote their work with somewhat academic problems -- like pattern-matching software that can play games like Jeopardy! and chess. But there are also much more commercially-driven problems for pattern-recognition that haven't been solved, and when those solutions are not quite forthcoming, the research behind it can become more about grabbing attention than actually creating utilitarian algorithms. And adding a bit of mystery can make almost any research sound more appealing to the public.

A recent example of tackling a hard problem and making it sound mysterious comes from Google's research into quantum computing algorithms in which Google has partnered with the small Canadian startup, D-Wave, to master the computational realm of image recognition. The mystery, though, is that there may or may not be any quantum computing involved at all in this research. D-Wave claims to have a silicon-based chip that can simulate certain quantum mechanical scenarios, but the company hasn't yet published any peer-reviewed papers on their apparent breakthroughs in quantum computing. D-Wave admits it's not sure whether or not its technology is truly simulating quantum behavior, but presumably, the determination can be performed if the company really wanted to know with certainty. So while D-Wave says it's still evaluating its own technology, skeptics question the validity of their claims.

In the meantime, though, a reportedly faster image recognition algorithm seems to rely on D-Wave's chip. Google has presented its research for it with the conclusion that its "quantum" algorithm has surpassed Google's existing classical algorithms currently in use in its own data centers. However, these results don't necessarily mean the achievement is notable. A better algorithm could be classical as well. And given that the D-Wave chip hasn't been fully characterized, it's not clear how it compares to other chips. In the end, though, Google can brag about its cutting edge research, even if the progress can't be fully measured.
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  1. icon
    Marcus Carab (profile), 28 Dec 2009 @ 6:59pm

    I have been trying to get to the bottom of the D-Wave claim (in an admittedly somewhat cursory way) for awhile... I can't help but believe that if the scientific community there was any real chance that they had really created a working quantum chip with real-world applications, then it would be huge news. There should already be a hundred other initiatives to use their technology...

    And yet, at the same time, I don't see Google backing a bunch of shifty con-scientists: they must believe it is at least possible that they really have a quantum chip, otherwise they wouldn't put themselves in the awkward position of backing a startup that later turns out to have been twisting the facts.

    I suppose, to be fair, D-Wave does openly admit that there is no proof of quantum activity in their chip... but they also don't do anything to quell the layman's excitement over a supposed breakthrough that is very dubious to the experts...

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