If you put the world's first commercially available quantum computer and the world's foremost commercial user of computing power together, magical things will happen. At least, that was the idea when Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) started using the D-Wave Two machine from controversial D-Wave Systems. The reality doesn't quite match up -- but in the long run, that might be a good thing.
The D-Wave machines are not thought to be "pure" quantum computers in the sense that quantum entanglement -- wherein the quantum states of one object among many can only be described with reference to the other objects -- occurs in the processing core. However, some promising tests have been run that show markedly faster processing of certain problems over what seems possible on traditional desktop machines. Google had already partnered with D-Wave in 2009, but its latest project was the real first attempt to match up the "quantum computer" against a PC running an optimized algorithm to solve the same problem.
The results, obtained by Google's team on a Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT)-owned D-Wave Two, were a bit underwhelming. A New Scientist report on the tests showed that, at best, the D-Wave Two's performance matched that of a standard PC:
[The Google] team ran their tests on a D-Wave Two owned by Lockheed Martin and operated by the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There were certain instances in which the D-Wave computer was up to 10 times faster at problem solving, but in other instances it was one-hundredth the speed of the classical computer. D-Wave's advantage also tended to disappear when the team added in the time needed to configure the D-Wave Two to solve the problem, a step that is not necessary on regular PCs.
It's possible that the D-Wave machines might eventually be optimized to perform much better, but a failed result can be good news, as well. Universal quantum computers could solve difficult problems far faster than any modern supercomputer could ever hope to, thanks to an ability to simultaneously store many more values than just the 1s and 0s of classical circuit-based computing. Properly discarding D-Wave as a pretender could allow more research to be focused on building a true quantum machine. At the very least, it highlights how far we've yet to go before quantum computing makes the leap from a Silicon Valley sideshow to a legitimate technology.
You can actually invest in the development of quantum computing today -- IBM (NYSE:IBM) researchers unveiled progress that was considered impressive enough in 2012 that they projected the completion of a true quantum computer before the end of the next decade. That's a long time to wait for the next generation of computing, but keep in mind that the first analog "computer" was conceived all the way back in 1822, and the first digital computer didn't come online for another 122 years. We're now 70 years into the digital computing era, so what's a few more years to wait for the dawn of true quantum computing? By the 2030s, we might be using Google to solve the mysteries of the universe on IBM quantum computers. If it takes a few more failures to get there, so much the better for progress.