How NASA uses quantum computing for space travel and robotics

Quantum computing is still in its infancy, even though the idea of a quantum computer was developed some thirty years ago. But there are a whole load of pioneering organizations (like Google) that are exploring how this potentially revolutionary technology could help them solve complex problems that modern-day computers just aren’t capable of doing at any useful speed.

One such organization is NASA, whose use of D-Wave Systems quantum computing machines is helping it research better and safer methods of space travel, air traffic controls and missions involving sending robots to far-off places, explained Davide Venturelli, a science operations manager at NASA Ames Research Center, Universities Space Research Association. I’ll be speaking with Venturelli on stage at Structure Data 2015 from March 18-19 in New York City and we’ll be sure to cover how NASA envisions the future of quantum computing.

The basic idea of quantum computing is that quantum bits, or qubits — which can exist in more than two states and be represented as both a 0 and 1 simultaneously — can be used to greatly boost computing power compared to even today’s most powerful super computers. This contrasts with the modern-day binary computing model, in which the many transistors contained in silicon chips can be either switched on or off and can thus only exist in two states, expressed as a 0 or 1.

With the development of D-Wave Systems machines that have quantum computing capabilities (although researchers argue they are not true quantum computers along the lines of the ones dreamed up on pen and paper in the early 1980s), scientists and engineers can now attempt to solve much more complex tasks without having to perform the type of experiments used to generate quantum phenomena, explained Venturelli. However, these machines are just the tip of the quantum iceberg, and Venturelli still pays attention to ground-breaking research that may lead to better quantum devices.

NASA hopes to use the machines to solve optimization problems, which in its most basic terms means finding the best solution out of many solutions. One such example of an optimization problem NASA has focussed on deals with air-traffic management in which scientists try to “optimize the routes” of planes in order to “make sure the landing and taking off of airplanes in terminals are as efficient as possible,” said Venturelli. If the scientists are able to route air traffic in the best possible way, there’s a good chance they can reduce the dangers of congested skies.

Davide Venturelli

Davide Venturelli

NASA also wants to use quantum computing to help with automated planning and scheduling, a subset of artificial intelligence that NASA uses to plan out robotic missions to other planets. NASA typically plans out these type of endeavors ten years in advance, said Venturelli.

The goal is to plan out the mission of the robots far in advance because realtime communication with the robots just isn’t feasible given how far away other planets are from the Earth. Using quantum optimization, NASA scientists will have new tools to basically forecast what may occur during the mission and what would be the best possible plan of attack for the robots to do their work.

“We have some missions where we imagine sending multiple robots to planets and these robots will need to coordinate and will need to do operations like landing and such without realtime communication,” said Venturelli.

Scientists need to “maximize the lifetime of the batteries” used by the robots as they perform tasks on the planets that may include drilling or using infrared thermometers to record temperatures, so careful planning of how the robots do their tasks is needed in order to ensure that no time is wasted. This all involves a lot of variables that normal computers just aren’t up-to-speed to process and could be a fit for quantum computing.

“[The robot] has to figure out what is the best schedule and figure out if he can recharge and when to go in a region where it is dark and a region where there is water,” said Venturelli. “We need to preplan the mission.”

Quantum computing gets some love with D-Wave taking in $29M

Quantum computing specialist D-Wave Systems now has $29 million in new funding and plans to go on a hiring spree to add to its staff of over 120 people, according to the company. The cash infusion follows a $30 million funding round landed last July.

D-Wave Systems did not name the lead investor or other investors; I reached out to the company for more information and will update this post if I hear back. Previous investors include Fidelity Canada Fund, [company]Goldman Sachs[/company], Business Development Bank of Canada and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Gigaom’s Derrick Harris previously reported that regardless of some of the debates about whether D-Wave technology constitutes a true quantum computing system, it’s clearly struck a chord with organizations that rely on powerful computing infrastructure.

[company]Lockheed Martin[/company], [company]Google[/company], NASA, the University of Southern California and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) are all D-Wave partners and plan to use its computers for research into machine learning and space exploration, according to the company’s statement.

While quantum computing is still far from mainstream, there are still some promising developments that could pave the way for smaller companies without the resources of a NASA or a Google to add quantum computing to their infrastructure.

This week, a team of scientists from the Università degli Studi di Pavia said they were able to outfit a silicon chip to handle quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which particles can link up and influence each other no matter the distance separating them.

For more on how NASA plans to use quantum computing to boost space travel and artificial intelligence, be sure to check out this year’s Structure Data conference from March 18-19 in New York City; There, I’ll be talking with Davide Venturelli, science operations manager, NASA Ames Research Center, Universities Space Research Association and I’m sure to ask how NASA is using D-Wave Systems.

Update – 1:27 PM PST
D-Wave got back to me and said that it could not reveal the investor. Regarding more details on what it plans to do with its funding, CEO Vern Brownell had this to say, via email:

[blockquote person=”Vern Brownell” attribution=”Vern Brownell”]Growing our software capability and tools is a big priority, and we plan on doing a lot of hiring in that area, a big part of the 35 or so people total we plan to hire. We’re working both within the company, and with partners in the quantum ecosystem space, to build software and industry-specific applications that use quantum computing in a new and innovative way. [/blockquote]

Google is trying to build its own quantum computing processors

Google is teaming with a group of UCSB researchers, which has already demonstrated success with a new type of quantum architecture, to design and build its own quantum computing hardware. Google says it will continue its research with D-Wave Systems’ quantum computing system, too.

D-Wave Systems raises $30M to keep commercializing its quantum computer

D-Wave Systems has raised $30 million to continue improving a technology that the company claims is the first commercial quantum computer. Debate over its quantum properties persist, but the company is working on things that could pay off regardless how the system is ultimately labeled.

Startups building quantum computing apps for cancer research, financial services

DNA-SEQ and 1QBit, two startups working on cancer research and financial modeling, respectively, have partnered with quantum computer manufacturer D-Wave Systems to try and develop applications that can run on the latter’s system. Last month, a company called Aerospace Concepts announced its plans to develop quantum computing software targeting advanced systems design. Debate over D-Wave’s technology aside, attempts to build quantum software targeting specific industries are meaningful. If they’re eventually proven effective, such applications will presumably lower barriers to adoption (e.g., how to use them and when) that often accompany new technologies.

Get ready for a quantum computing software company

An Australian company called Aerospace Concepts is partnering with Lockheed Martin to perform research on its quantum computer that could result in the world’s first quantum computing software company. Aerospace Concepts specializes in complex system design, a presumably strong use case for quantum computing.

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