D-Wave – Fast Enough to Win my Bet?

Really Would Like to Get That Raclette Cheese.

Last summer I had to ship a crate of maple syrup to Matthias Troyer at the ETHZ in Switzerland. The conditions we had agreed on for our performance bet were so that, at this point, the D-Wave One could not show a clear performance advantage over a conventional, modern CPU running fine-tuned optimization code. The machine held its own, but there weren’t any problem classes to point to that really demonstrated massive performance superiority.


Impressive benchmark graph. Next on my Christmas wishlist: A decisive widening of the gap between the green QMC curve and the blue D-Wave line as the problem size increases (as is the case when compared to the red Simulated Annealing curve).

 

The big news to take away from the recent Google/D-Wave performance benchmark is that, with certain problem instances, the D-Wave machine clearly shines. 100 million times better in comparison to a Quantum Monte Carlo Simulation is nothing to sneeze at. This doesn’t mean that I would now automatically win my bet with Matthias if we were to repeat it with the D-Wave Two, but it’ll make it much more interesting for sure.

One advantage of being hard-pressed to find time for blogging is that once I get around to commenting on recent developments, most other reactions are already in. Matthias provided this excellent write-up, and the former D-Wave critic-in-chief remains in retirement. Scott Aaronson’s blog entry on the matter strikes a (comparatively) conciliatory tone. One of his comments explains one of the reason for this change:

“[John Martinis] told me that some of the engineering D-Wave had done (e.g., just figuring out how to integrate hundreds of superconducting qubits while still having lines into them to control the couplings) would be useful to his group. That’s one of the main things that caused me to moderate a bit (while remaining as intolerant as ever of hype).”

Scott also gave a pretty balanced interview to the MIT News (although I have to subtract a star on style for working in a dig at Geordie Rose – clearly the two won’t become best buds in this lifetime).

Hype is generally and righteously scorned in the scientific community.  And when it is pointed out (for instance when the black hole information loss problem had been “solved”), the scientists involved are usually on the defensive.

Buddy
Buddy the Elf believes anything Steve Jurvetson ever uttered and then some.

Of course, business follows very different rules, more along the Donald Trump rules of attention. Any BS will do as long as it captures audience. Customers are used to these kinds of commercial exaggerations, and so I am always a bit puzzled by the urge to debunk D-Wave “hype”. To me it feels almost a bit patronizing. The average Joe is not like Buddy the Elf, the unlikely hero of my family’s favorite Christmas movie. When Buddy comes to NYC and sees a diner advertising the world’s best coffee,  he takes this at face value and goes crazy over it.  The average Joe, on the other hand, has been thoroughly desensitized to high tech hype. He knows that neither Google Glasses nor Apple Watches will really change his life forever, nor will he believe Steve Jurvetson that the D-Wave machines will outperform the universe within a couple of years. Steve, on the other hand, does what every good VC business man is supposed to do for a company that he invested in, i.e. create hype. The world has become a virtual bazaar, and your statements have to be outrageous and novel in order to be heard over the noise. What he wants to get across is that the D-Wave machines will grow in performance faster than conventional hardware. Condensing this into Rose’s Law is the perfect pitch vehicle for that – hype with a clear purpose.

People like to pick an allegiance and cheer for their “side”. It is the narrative that has been dominating the D-Wave story for many years, and it made for easy blogging, but I won’t miss it. The hypers gonna hype, the haters gonna hate, but now the nerds should know to trust the published papers.

Max Planck famously quipped that science advances one funeral at a time, because even scientists have a hard time acting completely rationally and adjusting their stances when confronted with new data.  This is the 21st century, here’s to hoping that the scientific community has lost this kind of rigidity, even while most of humanity remains as tribal as ever.