Scott Aaronson visited the offices of Quantum Computer company Dwave systems

Scott Aaronson, a D-Wave Skeptic, visited the offices of Adiabatic Quantum computer company Dwave Systems

He had three factual points :

Point #1: D-Wave now has a 128-(qu)bit machine that can output approximate solutions to a particular NP-hard minimization problem—namely, the problem of minimizing the energy of 90-100 Ising spins with pairwise interactions along a certain fixed graph (the “input” to the machine being the tunable interaction strengths). So I hereby retire my notorious comment from 2007, about the 16-bit machine that D-Wave used for its Sudoku demonstration being no more computationally-useful than a roast-beef sandwich. D-Wave does have something today that’s more computationally-useful than a roast-beef sandwich; the question is “merely” whether it’s ever more useful than your laptop. Geordie presented graphs that showed D-Wave’s quantum annealer solving its Ising spin problem “faster” than classical simulated annealing and tabu search (where “faster” means ignoring the time for cooling the annealer down, which seemed fair to me). Unfortunately, the data didn’t go up to large input sizes, while the data that did go up to large input sizes only compared against complete classical algorithms rather than heuristic ones.

In summary, while the observed speedup is certainly interesting, it remains unclear exactly what to make of it, and especially, whether or not quantum coherence is playing a role.

Point #2. It remains true, as I’ve reiterated here for years, that we have no direct evidence that quantum coherence is playing a role in the observed speedup, or indeed that entanglement between qubits is ever present in the system.

Last year, as reported on this blog, D-Wave had a nice Nature paper that reported quantum tunneling behavior in an 8-qubit system. However, when I asked D-Wave scientist Mohammad Amin, he said he didn’t think that experiment provided any evidence for entanglement between qubits.

The “obvious” way to demonstrate entanglement between qubits would be to show a Bell inequality violation. (We know that this can be done in superconducting qubits, as the Schoelkopf group at Yale among others reported it a couple years ago.) Meanwhile, the “obvious” way to demonstrate a role for quantum coherence in the apparent speedup would be gradually to “turn down” the system’s coherence (for example, by adding an interaction that constantly measured the qubits in the computational basis), and check that the annealer’s performance degraded to that of classical simulated annealing. Unfortunately, the D-Wave folks told us that neither experiment seems feasible with their current setup, basically because they don’t have arbitrary local unitary transformations and measurements available. They said they want to try to demonstrate 2-qubit entanglement, but in the meantime, are open to other ideas for how to demonstrate a quantum role in the apparent speedup with their existing setup.

Point #3: D-Wave was finally able to clarify a conceptual point that had been bugging me for years. I—and apparently many others!—thought D-Wave was claiming that their qubits decohere almost immediately (so that, in particular, entanglement would almost certainly never be present during the computation), but that the lack of entanglement didn’t matter, for some complicated reason having to do with energy gaps. I was far from alone in regarding such a claim as incredible: as mentioned earlier, there’s no evidence that a quantum computer without entanglement can solve any problem asymptotically faster than a classical computer. However, that isn’t D-Wave’s claim. What they think is that their system decoheres almost immediately in the energy eigenbasis, but that it doesn’t decohere in the computational basis—so that, in particular, there would be entanglement at intermediate stages. If so, that would be perfectly fine from the standpoint of the adiabatic algorithm, which doesn’t need coherence in the energy eigenbasis anyway.

I do regret the snowballing nastiness that developed as a combined result of my and other skeptics’ statements, D-Wave’s and its supporters’ statements, and the adversarial nature of the blogosphere. For the first time, I find myself really, genuinely hoping—with all my heart—that D-Wave will succeed in proving that it can do some (not necessarily universal) form of scalable quantum computation.

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