At a Glance
- 1QBit is a Vancouver-based startup that uses advanced computing to find solutions to problems with countless conceivable answers.
- The company was named a 2015 technology pioneer by the World Economic Forum.
Quantum computers hold the potential to solve extremely complex problems more efficiently than traditional computers. This up-and-coming industry is one of rapid progress and innovation, and 1QBit is a company in the middle of the action.
The Vancouver based start-up is currently producing software that harnesses the power of quantum mechanics to solve intractable problems. The computational process they use, known as quantum annealing, attempts to find the best solutions to problems with countless conceivable answers. While most applications are still a few years out, financial applications such as portfolio management and currency trading are already being addressed.
The company is one of three in CME Ventures’ portfolio that was recently named a technology pioneer by the World Economic Forum. To learn more about what’s happening with quantum computing, we sat down with Andrew Fursman, co-founder and CEO of 1QBit. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
First thing’s first. What is quantum computing?
I have a very relaxed definition of computing. I think of a computer as anything where you can input information and get out more than the sum of the inputs. The reason I try and stress that is because we often think of the machines we call computers today as being the only valid computing architecture. if you build something that’s not a Turing machine but it can still compute things, in my view, that is also a computer.
Back in the 1980s a bunch of well-respected scientists, including a rather famous physicist named Richard Feynman, proposed the idea of taking regular computers and replacing all of the bits inside of them with quantum bits, which have these very special properties, and that’s what a quantum computer would be. That’s a great idea, but no one has been able to successfully build one of these machines today. Instead, people have built other machines which use quantum bits to very advanced forms of computation, but through a different architecture; it’s led to this interesting debate that’s really not so much about science as it is about nomenclature.
What types of problems can today’s quantum computing machines solve?
One of the canonical examples has been something called the traveling salesman problem. The idea is that if you’re a UPS driver and you have to deliver 100 packages from your truck and then get back to UPS before the end of the day, there are an astronomically large number of routes that you can take to complete your deliveries, but only one of them is the shortest possible route. These types of computers are really good at a process known as combinatorial optimization, which in this instance means of all the combinations of routes that I could take to deliver those packages, I want to find the very shortest one.
Regular computers have difficulty solving this problem exactly because it’s too big to measure all the different possible combinations and choosing the best one in a reasonable amount of time. People have found ways to get pretty good answers in a reasonably short amount of time, but the trade-off for reduced time is reduced accuracy. The new generation of quantum computers is really designed to improve upon that, to find these really good answers and in some cases the optimal answers in a much shorter time frame.
Explain what you mean by combinatorial optimization.
That’s exactly the way that you can think about what the machine does. If you think about a room that has ten light switches in it, each one of those light switches can be on or off. The total number of ways you can light the room is a function of the number of different ways you can set all those light switches. So with ten light switches, you’ve got about a thousand possible ways to light a room. Twenty will get you to a million, thirty to a billion, forty to a trillion, and by the time you’ve got 250 light switches, there’s more ways that you could light a room than there are atoms in the observable universe. With all that huge amount of combinations, it’s about trying to pick the best combination given your own constraints. And that’s really where quantum computing is poised to be most helpful today, is in that selection of the best option among a large number of possible combinations.
Do you think quantum computing will soon be a household term?
This is a technology people have been thinking about for a long time. It’s a number of little breakthroughs that have happened over the last few years which have taken this from thought experiment territory to being a real industry. No one is saying that it’s time to throw out your classic computer because quantum is here – it’s more just that this is the point in time when this industry has really started to take off on its own. It reminds me a lot of when I think back to the development of the original computing industry, that era where you have the first big companies starting to form like Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel. I’ve always thought about that as the most exciting time to be alive in the computing revolution and now there’s a whole recurrence of new fundamental technology. It’s so rare that you know that history is actually being made, and for us to be a part of that is such a huge honor.