October 9, 2012

Why does Jeff Bezos need a quantum computer?


Jeff Bezos hisses with glee at his new investment.

News reached us last week of Jeff Bezoslatest venture. According to Tom Simonite of the MIT Technology Review our favorite temp-scalding billionaire has just invested thirty million dollars in D-Wave, a company claiming to be making big steps in the field of quantum computing.

Quantum computing has been a bit of a brass ring in the tech race for some time now, a technology with the potential for vast rewards in applications dealing in complexity and simplest-path “optimization” problems, but one so misunderstood and difficult to attain that the entire concept has been plagued by myth and naysayers. For some industries, however, like pharmaceuticals or machine intelligence, it is a way forward in an age where Moore’s Law seems — even with the advent of 3D processors — close to running its course.

D-Wave’s technology, according to Simonite, is meant to work like this:

The qubits [loops of superconducting niobium alloy] enter a strange quantum state where they are simultaneously both 1 and 0, like Schrodinger’s cat being both dead and alive, and lock into a strange synchronicity known as entanglement, a phenomenon once described by Einstein as “spooky.” That allows the system of qubits to explore every possible final configuration in an instant, before settling into on the one that is simplest or very close to it.

Setting aside the quantum mechanics of the process, in essence users would be feeding the computer a set of variables and the rules by which these variables can interact, setting the entangled qubits into a state of tension, and then allowing them to collapse into a new state, hopefully revealing an “optimized” answer to, say, a protein-folding problem.

D-Wave has its skeptics, as most tech blogs have been quick to point out, and a history of perhaps overstating their results, but that may be more of a problem for scientists than investors.

A few more details of note here:

Jeff Bezos, as of September 2012, is worth 23.3 billion dollars. That means, if you do the math, that his investment of $30 million in a company is almost exactly equitable to my gift of three dollars to that guy lying to me about needing bus fare on the corner in downtown Cleveland this weekend. If thirty million dollars fell out of Jeff Bezos’ jacket pocket while he was buying a pack of gum, he would honestly think for a moment about whether it was worth bending over to pick it up.

The other big investor in D-Wave this month was In-Q-Tel, the venture firm used by the CIA. That’s right, Jeff Bezos and the CIA both want to get in on this technology from the ground floor. That’s reassuring, yes?

We know why the CIA would like quantum computing: to help optimize the coffee breaks of the civilian contractors they hire to pilot the drones that are killing wedding parties and American citizens over in Afghanistan and Yemen. But what simplest-path computations would Bezos like to perform? Here are my guesses:

Leave your own answers in the comments.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.