Lockheed Martin is looking at several challenging applications for the quantum-computing hardware it has purchased from from D-Wave Systems, the New York Times reported Friday. The use of quantum computing is a big deal because as we depend more on computing, we’re going to need different types of processors. Lockheed’s commercial use suggests that the probabilistic problem-solving approach and breakneck speed of quantum computing could be more widely adopted in the near future.
For the record, D-Wave and Lockheed formed their commercial relationship a couple of years ago, although at the time the defense contractor apparently didn’t discuss possible applications. Now there are some specifics on how Lockheed could employ its D-Wave computer, following projections on other types of applications.
Lockheed Martin will use its D-Wave computer “to create and test complex radar, space and aircraft systems,” the Times’ Quentin Hardy wrote. “It could be possible, for example, to tell instantly how the millions of lines of software running a network satellites would react to a solar burst or a pulse from a nuclear explosion — something that can now take weeks, if ever, to determine.”
Rather than working with binary yes-or-no questions — ones and zeros — quantum computing is more probabilistic, also allowing a combination of zero and one to simultaneously answer many questions with quantum bits of information, or qubits, and tell users more about the likelihood of a situation. It’s not necessarily useful for all kinds of computing, but it could solve problems that current computers can’t.
It’s also a great way forward for computing to keep following the spirit of Moore’s Law, in the sense that it could permit more powerful computing than what’s possible today. The question is how soon it will become commercially viable. The quantum computer cost Lockheed $10 million, according to one report, so it will take some time and more commercial interest before the price can come down.
Commercial applications of quantum computing are a long time coming. In a 2010 GigaOM Research report on quantum computing (subscription required), my colleague Stacey Higginbotham wrote that commercial viability could take decades, not years.