For many people, it's simple: Either you believe in D-Wave or you don't. The Canadian company claims to be building "quantum computers," which operate based on quantum mechanics and can theoretically perform 2-to-the-power-of-512 operations at the same time—more calculations than there are atoms in the universe, writes Lev Grossman in a Time cover article. That makes quantum computers ideal for huge, complex tasks like cracking online codes or designing smarter artificial intelligence. Lockheed Martin, a NASA lab funded by Google, and an unidentified intelligence agency have each paid $10 million for the apparently quantum D-Wave Two computer. But detractors say those buyers have been sold a load of bunk.
So here's the science: Regular computer chips compute with "bits" that can be a 1 or 0 at any time. But true to the weirdness of everything quantum, quantum bits can be 1 or 0 at the same time, performing two simultaneous calculations that multiply exponentially as bits interrelate. According to one physicist, this fuzziness allows tasks "to be performed in collaboration between parallel universes." D-Wave claims that its chips, kept at a mind-boggling -459.6 degrees Fahrenheit, can enter a state of quantum superposition and return to classical 1s and 0s to relay real-world information. But a new paper finds that D-Wave Two can be explained by classical physics alone, reports IEEE Spectrum, while mild skeptics say it uses "quantum effects" in a limited fashion. D-Wave admits that its machine is an early quantum computer that serves only one purpose—optimizing complex tasks—but is still better than critics believe. "Science progresses by rocking the ship," says company co-founder Geordie Rose. "Things like this are a necessary component of forward progress." Click for Grossman's full article. (Or read about the NSA's attempt to build a quantum computer.)