The best of both worlds

Main visual : The best of both worlds

Do you quite like the idea of rocket car performance but with the practicality and cost characteristics of a mass-produced motor? That writes Dr. Dave Snelling, Fujitsu Fellow and Program Director Artificial Intelligence at Fujitsu, is what’s now possible in the world of quantum computing.

There are lots of reasons for thinking quantum computing is weird. Even the founding physicists of quantum mechanics thought it was crazy – “spooky action at a distance” in Einstein’s famous words, while Schrödinger’s ill-fated (or not) cat was intended to be such an outlandish idea that it would demonstrate some of the more bizarre implications of quantum theory must – surely – be false.

Yet here we are in a world where quantum computers exist and are expected to carry out real calculations, solving real business problems. The future is undoubtedly exciting for these devices but the current reality is that they cannot yet solve complex problems involving vast arrays of combinations. These ‘combinatorial’ problems can be so complex that they are also beyond the power of conventional computers to obtain answers in commercially usable timescales – for some calculations you could reasonably expect an answer in decades, for others, a few hundred million years might suffice.

Right now, quantum devices are pretty exotic – really high-maintenance pieces of hardware that you would not want for your business-critical applications. But there is an alternative for the real world: one that we predict will move into mainstream business thinking in 2019 and which offers the best of both worlds – quantum-like performance, but without the associated headaches.

Quantum-inspired

Fujitsu’s research scientists were the first in the world to realize that there is an interesting and fertile possibility to leverage quantum algorithms on digital circuit-based architecture. Inspired by the quantum phenomena within silicon architectures, we have used conventional semiconductor technology to develop the quantum-inspired Digital Annealer.

I’d like to be very clear: this is not a quantum computer. It is built on classical hardware technology inspired by quantum phenomena to solve combinatorial optimization problems quickly, without the added costs and complexities that are typically associated with quantum computing.

The analogy I like is to imagine you have a knapsack and a choice or 25 valuable objects and you want to carry as much value as possible, but you can’t take it all, as that would too heavy. It complicated too, as some objects together are worth more than their sum. If you tried one combination every second, you could find the best combination in a mere 500 trillion millennia. On the other hand, the Digital Annealer today allows you to simultaneously test 20,000 combinations and provide solutions up to 17,000 times faster than the best possible alternative computational methods. That’s today. Fujitsu’s roadmap for Digital Annealer takes us this year to what we call ‘DAU2’, which is expected to have 100 times higher performance than DAU1.

A new class of business possibilities

You might be thinking we are talking about esoteric computational issues limited to the lab and the fringes of science. But that would be wrong. The Digital Annealer is perfect for big, challenging problems and creates a long-term, reliable solution to help customers deliver off-the-scale, novel solutions to real business and societal problems. We understand that, alongside the incredible potential of the technology, Digital Annealer requires new ways of approaching computational problems and for that reason, we offer it as a cloud service with consultancy and support. This enables you to qualify for quantum-like computing today, with all the implications that have for transforming your business, and for society, by solving real-world problems today.

On the development of software for the Digital Annealer, we have been working with Vancouver-based 1QBit (1QB Information Technologies Inc.). As Dennis Loktionov of 1QBit says, “Fujitsu’s Digital Annealer is a great example of a practical solution platform that can be leveraged for solving real-world optimization problems today while exploring how the novel formulations of those problems will benefit from quantum computers in the future. It provides a unique combination of a classic digital circuit that is reliable, can operate at room temperature and takes advantage of this unique computing paradigm.”

In financial services, Fujitsu and 1QBit have worked with UK bank NatWest to optimize the selection of securities in its £120 billion investment portfolio. This is not a blue-sky exercise by the bank – UK legislation requires banks to demonstrate that High-Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) in their portfolios are robust enough to weather possible financial storms of the future. This is a fiendishly complex task and – as things currently stand – not something you can do in real time, therefore limiting the flexibility the bank has to respond to new market conditions. Using Digital Annealer, NatWest has demonstrated that a task taking weeks and needing to tie up a huge number of resources, can be dramatical, shortened while also reducing the risk of human error.

A number of global automotive firms and manufacturing companies are already using Digital Annealer for complex computations, ranging from job-shop re-scheduling and welding sequencing to inventory pick-up, and parts placement for distribution and warehouse operation optimization. Even this potential is just scratching the surface of possibilities in those industries, where increasing use of mass-customization means that real-time calculation of the optimum manufacturing sequences or machine movements – each perhaps minor in itself – aggregates into major savings spread across a global production schedule. We also envision there will be significant impact during the course of this year in areas such as car design optimization, where Digital Annealer allows testing of many more variants than is currently possible, quicker, at lower cost and without wiping out the manufacturer’s IT resources for days at a time.

Traffic route optimization for public transport service providers and for municipal and national governments is the ‘holy grail’ in the pursuit of reduced traffic congestion for productivity and environmental benefits. The current state-of-the-art is offering drivers alternative routes to avoid congestion. However, that just creates new congestion hot-spots elsewhere. Digital Annealer has already demonstrated the capacity to reduce congestion by 40 percent by real-time calculation – and recalculation – of all the variables in play, to avoid that scenario.

Your bridge to the quantum future

Digital Annealer opens up possibilities that we have simply screened out in the past as “unrealistic”. It will take time and a new way of thinking for organizations to realize that the field of opportunities is suddenly much wider than they ever imagined. For business strategists, Digital Annealer provides the bridge to get quantum-like computation today while preparing for the serviceable quantum computers that will start arriving in the foreseeable future.

And the beauty is that this new world of computational possibility – and the business improvements that flow from it – are available today from Fujitsu as a pay-as-you-go cloud service. If you’d like to find out more, and get into the technology, there’s a web page here.