Volkswagen has become a customer of D-Wave Systems, which builds quantum computers that cost $15 million each.
Martin Hofmann, VW’s chief information officer, told New York Times that the investment in quantum computing technology is a sign of things to come. “For us, it’s a new era of technology,” he said.
VW is claimed to have used a D-Wave computer to steer the movements of 10,000 taxis in Beijing simultaneously, optimising their routes and reducing congestion, according to the report in NYT.
While some expressed scepticism over the test, many computer technology experts agree that binary computing systems will not be capable of keeping up with the colossal growth in both the volume of data and the requirements for processing it.
Quantum computing, which some say might be the solution, is still in the experimental stage and there are many challenges to overcome, never mind the fact that no one understands anything about it.
Quantum computers, as the name suggests, is supposed to utilise the strange occurrences of the quantum world, which are very different from the binary computing world.
In binary systems, which is what all current computers use, the transistors on a microchip are either on or off – 0 or 1. Either of these states is a “bit”, or a binary digit, in computing jargon, and is the smallest unit of data.
Combinations of these zeros and ones are called “bytes” in computing. So, an eight-bit byte could look like this: 11111111. That’s eight ones. Such a byte is often considered a unit of memory size; in this example, this would be an 8-bit memory size.
Most desktop computers – or microcomputers as they used to be called – these days have 64-bit processors, which means they can handle instructions of 64 bits at a time. And they may have one terabyte of hard disk space, which means they store 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of memory.
All of this is reasonably logical, even if you’re eyes can go funny looking at all those zeros.
Looking at the quantum world, however, can make your brain go funny, as nothing is as logical as it is in the binary world.
It’s a reasonably well known fact that scientists have observed the same quantum particle in two places at once, the reasons for which they are yet to adequately explain.
But even without explaining the reasons why, scientists and technologists have been able to utilise quantum phenomena to create real-world products like – funnily enough – computer chips.
The light that binds
Apparently, every element in the periodic table absorbs and emits light of very particular frequencies, and these unique spectral lines are regularly used to identify the composition of various substances, according to an interesting explanation on Forbes.com.
Using this key observation, or set of observations, scientists and technologists have been able to create the modern computer-driven, electronic world.
Quantum computing, however, is looking to go deeper into the quantum world – beyond electrons and the light each set of atoms emits. They may even go to the sub-atomic level, where particles can behave in even more extreme and inexplicable ways.
Nonetheless, a number of the leading tech companies – IBM, Google, Intel and other chipmakers, and of course D-Wave – are developing microprocessors and computing systems based on quantum phenomena.
The companies measure their systems’ capabilities using something called a “qubit”, or quantum bit, which is like a “bit” or binary digit.
The difference is that whereas a bit is either a zero or a one, a qubit can be also either a zero or one – or both at the same time because of something called “quantum superposition”, meaning that, unlike a human being, a quantum being can be in two places at once.
This inexplicable ability is said to hold the promise of quantum computers with far more power than binary computers will ever attain.
Big claims for tiny particles
D-Wave claims its system has 2,000 qubits, although it’s probably not a good idea at this stage for mere mortals to use such numbers to compare different systems until more is understood about them. Not that there’s an awful lot of competitors to D-Wave’s systems.
IBM has produced a processor for quantum computing which it says is configured in 16-qubit and 17-qubit forms, as reported in Technology Review.
Google says it has built a quantum computer chip which has six qubits, also reported in Technology Review, although the company says designs for devices of 30 to 50 qubits are already in progress.
A number of other companies and organisations – including Microsoft, Nasa, the US government, and probably Apple – are all working on quantum computing systems.
What this means for the automotive sector, or any other sector, is yet unknown, beyond the obvious – the more computing power, the better.
But certainly, VW’s investment in the technology shows that the traditional automotive giants have realised the quantum computing is the future of cars and perhaps every other technology, even if no one understands what it is.
Auto manufacturers tend to use very large computing systems in the design and development of vehicles, but whereas they may have hired the capability before, they want to own it now.
Often, such companies will hire time on a supercomputer, and some say that a well-programmed supercomputer is still much faster than any of the quantum computers on the market today.
Supercomputers still rule
The hierarchy of computing power – not including cloud or cluster computing – might look like the following list, with the most powerful at the top:
- Mainframe computers
- Mobile computers
Quantum computers are looking to enter the list at the very top, above supercomputers.
One of the reasons for wanting to own or even produce the computing infrastructure, however, could be that, even though today’s binary computer chips and systems are said to be capable of autonomously driving a car, tomorrow’s auto giants could be the ones who build or develop their own custom quantum chips and systems, or at least understand quantum phenomena well enough to write firmware for quantum chips like the ones produced by IBM and Google.
Otherwise they might be left stranded in the binary world, and clearly VW has no intention of being left behind.
Other companies from the automotive sector in Germany are also making significant investments in computing technology.
BMW is busy building a new data centre that is “10 times the size of the company’s existing facility”, according to the NYT.
Reinhard Stolle, a vice president in charge of artificial intelligence at BMW, said: “The processing power needed to deal with all this data is orders of magnitude larger than what we are used to.
“The traditional control engineering techniques are just not able to handle the complexity anymore.”
Meanwhile, Bosch is building a massive chip factory which will represent the biggest investment in the company’s 130-year history.
Bosch chairman Volkmar Denner says: “By expanding our manufacturing capacities for semiconductors, we are looking forward to the future and strengthen our competitiveness.”
Bosch is one of the world’s leading suppliers of advanced driver assistance systems to the big automotive companies.