How Dwave Won the $10 million Lockheed Contract
Lockheed Martin makes some of the most complex systems in the world — things like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. On average, half the cost of developing a new complex system at Lockheed Martin is system verification and validation, and the major component of this is software verification and validation. The concern is that as it builds ever more complex systems, this cost will rise. “I have quipped in various board meetings that maybe we ought to give the airplanes away and sell the software maintenance contracts,” says Ned Allen, Lockheed’s chief scientist.
Instead, Allen decided that the best way of debugging the company’s software was to throw out the computers. The great mathematician and founding figure of computer science, Alan Turing, showed that it is impossible to eliminate all errors from software. But the laws of physics are another matter.
Allen’s idea is to write what amounts to a compiler to translate digital code into analog code, and then run the analog code on an analog computer of some sort. The code is directly connected to the physics of the computer, unlike digital computers that involve a logical abstraction. “The most fundamental analog computer that I know of is called quantum thermodynamics,” he says.
Allen sent D-Wave a sample problem to run on the D-Wave system: a 30-year-old chunk of code from the F-16 aircraft. The software has an error that took a crack team of Lockheed Martin engineers several months to find. Six weeks after sending the code, Allen visited D-Wave and was given a demonstration that included identifying the software error. “I was just bowled over,” says Allen.
He then convinced Lockheed Martin’s management to buy a D-Wave computer and install it in a lab at USC’s Information Sciences Institute. Lockheed Martin and USC split time on the machine, and Lockheed Martin’s access is via a secure network. The machine came online at noon on December 23, and the company now has 50 people working on it.
But even Daniel Lidar — the man who set up the sale to Lockheed — says the D-Wave machine is not a “universal” quantum computer. He calls it a “special purpose optimization engine.” Lidar is the man who actually operates the D-Wave machine as the scientific director of the USC Lockheed Martin Quantum Computation Center, and one of his first priorities is to build tests that will show — conclusively — whether the chip is quantum or classical.
D-Wave is looking to work with a cloud partner, but Brownell declined to identify candidates. One possibility is Google. In 2009, Google researcher Hartmut Neven cowrote a paper with D-Wave researchers that showed that the D-Wave system might be useful for searching across large image databases.
Further out, D-Wave is looking to develop machine learning technology and get into the data analytics field. The company has found that a range of machine learning problems are at the core really optimization problems. “A lot of the world is faced with the problem of how you draw inferences from huge amounts of data and can you do that in an automated way without human involvement,” says Brownell.