Quantum computing center upgrades to focus on AI

A USC-Lockheed Martin computing center doubles qubit capacity for artificial intelligence and optimization applications.

An upgraded quantum computer installed at a Lockheed Martin-sponsored computing center is being used to speed development of machine learning algorithms that underpin artificial intelligence applications.

The upgrade to the D-Wave 2X processor hosted by the USC-Lockheed Martin Quantum Computing Center doubles the system's capacity to 1,098 quantum bits, or qubits, a unit of two-state quantum information. The University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering hosts the computing center.

The upgraded system represents the third generation of quantum computer pioneer D-Wave Systems Inc.'s "quantum annealing" processor that solves problems by "tuning" qubits from their superposition state to a classical state. Digital computers use bits to process information, with each bit representing either a "1" or a "0." A qubit can represent a "1", a "0," or both at once, which is known as superposition. That property along with other quantum effects enables quantum computers to perform certain calculations much faster than classical supercomputers.

The USC-Lockheed Martin center has been wringing out the D-Wave machine since 2011. Center officials said they next hope to demonstrate "quantum enhancement" over classical high-performance computers, a goal that may "perhaps, finally be within reach."

USC researchers also claim the upgrade could help push the boundaries of promising but thus far unverified quantum computing approaches by D-Wave, based in Palo Alto, Calif., and IBM Research. IBM's quantum processor consists of five superconducting qubits. A cloud-enabled version was unveiled in May, allowing users to run algorithms and experiments or work with individual qubits, IBM said.

The goal of these early efforts is to build a "universal quantum computer" with processors containing up to 100 qubits. IBM estimates that a 50-qubit machine could outperform the world's fastest supercomputers.

IBM and the USC-Lockheed Martin center are seeking to leverage quantum processors to tackle difficult optimization problems that involve finding, for example, the best combination of things at the lower cost. Examples range from mission planning to financial analysis. Optimization applications are expect to be among the first applications to benefit from quantum speed-up.

Quantum computing also could help unlock facets of artificial intelligence, leading to more powerful cognitive computing technologies like IBM's Watson platform. Applications range from developing new materials to faster searches of big data.

For its part, Lockheed Martin is looking to quantum computing to tackle complex engineering problems beyond the reach of current computers. Greg Tallant, a Lockheed Martin fellow at the USC center, said the technology could be harnessed to speed the debugging of millions of lines of code or help solve the aerospace industry's toughest computational problems.

Lockheed Martin was among the first commercial customers for the D-Wave Two system. Meanwhile, NASA has installed a D-Wave 2X processor at its Ames Research Center in California. D-Wave was scheduled to install another 2X processor this year at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory, which helps maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

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