The standard computer works with a series of basic units called bits that can be either 1s or 0s: They signify on and off, yes and no. It is binary code, and until now it has been the basic language of computing.
Technology is, of course, always accelerating onward, but since the birth of computing, the underlying binary code language has been standard to the majority of machines. This may be about to change. Ready to make yet-unknown leaps into the future of technology, quantum computing, a benefactor of decades of quantum theory research, has arrived. As compared to standard computing, where bits must
either be a 0 or a 1, in quantum computing, the basic units of data, called qubits, can be either 1, 0, or anywhere in between in what is called in quantum mechanics a superposition
. Moreover, the value of a qubit can change when grouped with other qubits, or when observed by scientists. (Click here
for a more thorough explanation of a qubit.) The potential is almost endless, but for now scientists are still mostly contemplating uses for this new way of computing.
When business becomes involved, theory has a way of becoming reality: Corporations are beginning to buy quantum machines. Yesterday, NASA and Google
(NASDAQ:GOOG) announced they were co-purchasing a quantum computer, from a little-known Canadian company called D-Wave.
The 12-year-old firm based near Vancouver, BC, has received venture funds from Amazon's
(NASDAQ:AMZN) Jeff Bezos, Goldman Sachs
(NYSE:GS), and In-Q-Tel (an investment firm with ties to the CIA), and is the first to offer quantum computers for commercial use, with a price tag of about $15 million. D-Wave sold its first machine to global aerospace and security company Lockheed Martin
(NYSE:LMT) about two years ago, and the company recently announced it would be upgrading the technology from experimental to commercial use.
Not only are the machines expensive, but so is their upkeep: D-Wave's computer employs a pulse fridge that uses Helium-3 to maintain a steady state of .02 degrees above absolute zero. If not kept super chilled, the molecules that the computer manipulates would move around too chaotically to be properly analyzed.
Now, Google and NASA have followed suit: Among the many realistic and imaginative ideas the company has for its new technology, Google wants to improve search, especially for images, but also hopes to make leaps and bounds in improving machine learning and artificial intelligence. NASA intends to use the machine to optimize its search for planets, especially Earth-like ones, outside of our solar system.
Additionally, Google and NASA will split their quantum computer contract with the Universities Space Research Association. Universities will claim 20% of the computer's use, with research teams competing to work their proposal on the machine, which will be located at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, exactly 2.5 miles away from Google's headquarters in Mountain View. The computer is expected to go online in the third quarter of 2013.
In a statement on the deal, Google said, "We hope it helps researchers construct more efficient, effective models for everything from speech recognition, to Web search, to protein folding." From improving its search functionality to literally investigating (and perhaps replicating) the way that cells function, Google's approach to the quantum computer seems wide and varied.
But one man at Google definitely has a specific vision. As Greg Satell at Forbes
wrote, "In many ways, the Google-NASA partnership represents a new Manhattan Project, but instead of the aim being a nuclear explosion, the goal is to simulate the human brain, a feat that Google's Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, believes will be completed before the end of the next decade."
Kurzweil is one of the world's leading experts on artificial intelligence, and with his position at Google, he has a great deal of freedom to direct the company's $6.7 billion research and development budget towards A.I., and towards calculations and problem-solving that only a machine as sophisticated as a quantum computer could handle. Kurzweil is the author of seven books, including The Age of Spiritual Machines
and The Singularity Is Near
, in which he addresses, among other elements of artificial intelligence, an event called "the singularity."
"The singularity" is the term for the theoretical emergence of technological superintelligence, when computer intelligence and human intelligence reach equilibrium and become inseparable. Moreover, many believe computer superintelligence would quickly and handily surpass human intelligence. The scientists and theorists who believe the singularity is coming, Kurzweil being prominent among them, project the event happening within a general range of 2030 to 2070.
There is a lot to be read about the singularity, about quantum computing, and about quantum mechanics for that matter, but for the purposes of this story, the takeaway is this: Google has given an important job with a great deal of responsibility to a man who believes 100% that, within less than a century, machines will have intelligence equal to or greater than that of the most intelligent human being. Kurzweil will have direct access to the Ames Research Center quantum computer, as well as Google's deep pockets, in order to explore and develop artificial intelligence.
Lockheed Martin, Google, and NASA are dipping their toes into this untested new technology, so which industries will be next? As D-Wave has received funding from Goldman Sachs and Jeff Bezos, it's possible banking and online retail will see a quantum leap sometime soon. Though this remains to be seen, it is safe to say that a wide array of companies are paying attention to Google and NASA's joint-venture.
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