Co-Founder | D-Wave Systems

Haig Farris

The quantum computer will impact every area of human endeavour

Think about the computing power of that smartphone in your pocket. Next imagine what it must have been like landing on the moon in an Apollo 11 lunar module with a computer that was thousands of times less powerful than your phone. Now stretch your imagination even further, and try to comprehend a future where Quantum computing has the potential of being millions of times more powerful than any of today’s supercomputers. This will be the massive horsepower propelling forward the future of artificial intelligence, predictive technologies, gene code deciphering, designing new drugs and more.

The quantum computer is in its infancy but has the potential to help solve some of the world’s most complex problems. Companies and organizations are already discovering numerous ways to harness quantum power. Comparing quantum computers with standard computers starts with the fact that data must be encoded into a binary state of either 0 or 1. What makes quantum computers unique is the use of quantum bits. These quantum bits exist in a ‘superposition’ state (0 and 1 at the same time) which give them the capability of being millions of times faster.

Vancouver’s D-Wave Systems is the first company in the world to offer this technology for commercial use and is already showing incredible results. D-Wave is currently working with some of the world’s largest companies and organizations, such as Lockheed Martin, Google and NASA.

How Haig Farris co-founded D-Wave

Haig Farris grew up in a family of lawyers, with his grandfather founding the Vancouver based Farris Law firm in the early 1900’s.   Farris graduated from the University of Pennsylvania law school and became a lawyer. After 5 years of practicing law he started Venture West, which became the largest venture capital firm in Western Canada. After 20 years the company became too big for his liking, and Farris left.

He was asked to teach a graduate entrepreneurship course at UBC, and agreed to it as long as it was open to science, engineering graduate students. Farris felt the world had too many MBA’s and not enough scientists and engineers with an understanding of business and entrepreneurship.

“I did not know anything about teaching and was never a good student myself, so I was intimidated. I decided to interview each student before the class for an hour just to get to know who they are. For those who were exceptionally smart, I would find a way for them to give a talk in their subject. This way we could see if there was an opportunity to start a business around their research or idea.” said Farris.   He noted one of those students had a particular gift for the subject of quantum mechanics. That student Geordie Rose, “gave such a brilliant talk on quantum mechanics that everybody in the room had a little flash of understanding of what quantum mechanics were all about.” Rose would later become D-Wave Systems Co-founder and CEO.

Farris added,“I searched the net for information on quantum computing at that time (1995 )and only 4 results showed up! You Google it today and you will spend the rest of your life trying to follow all the links.” Sometime after his graduation, Geordie Rose shared with Farris that he had met someone who may have found a way to make a qubit (the transistor which makes the quantum computer work). Rose spent 3 months trying to disprove the idea and did not succeed. He eventually concluded that this theory was real and something should be done about it.

Rose and his partner, Alex Zagoskin, came to Farris’s office in 1999 to explain the physics but primarily focused on what it would mean to computing, to society, and what kind of impact it could have. “There wasn’t any area of human endeavour which would not be impacted because you could address, understand and solve problems that were not possible to solve before. We were talking about complex optimization problems, which could take a supercomputer a 1000 years to figure out, financial analytical problems, economic analysis, weather, drug design and understanding the human genome — whatever you can think of,” said Farris. “You do not have to do a market study to understand that this was important. The question was, can you actually build one of these things?”

Farris wrote the first cheque for $4,000 to buy a computer, a printer and to write a business plan, which ended up as thick as four drafts of War and Peace. In 2000 he managed to raise $500,000 with his friends to start the company. It was at the peak of the first Internet boom. Farris was the Chairman of the Board, and was responsible for raising money. Geordie Rose was then CEO and Alex Zagoskin was in charge of the research group which included a number Russian scientists (Russian expertise on superconductors was much more advanced than anywhere else at that time).

D-Wave reached an agreement with 7 or 8 institutions around Europe to help them fabricate, design and test a variety of qubit designs for their computer. The teamwork of many technicians and scientists, using fabrication facilities and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment to run countless experiments over 5 years, came to the conclusion that the gate-model quantum computer was not going to work.

The complexity of the issue with quantum mechanics called coherence (how long can you keep something in a quantum state) was going to take too many qubits to fix all the mistakes in order to reach the correct solution. They were talking about 20 more years of work. It seemed like time to give up. But Seth Lloyd, a brilliant physicist at MIT, postulated using a system called Adiabatic Quantum Computing. It would not perform the same magic as the ‘holy grail gate-model quantum computer,’ but it would use the power of quantum mechanics to produce a machine that could be relevant to business as a solution for significant optimization problems. A design and fabrication team that had just joined D-Wave convinced CEO Geordie Rose to switch to building a quantum annealing machine. With enough potential market for this machine, D-Wave made the decision to keep moving forward using this approach.

Over the years D-Wave has assembled an amazing team of theoretical physicists, mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, software developers and IP experts to allow D-Wave to lead the world in producing a commercial product.

D-Wave has now built the entire system including its input/output software. Lockheed Martin was their first customer, followed by Google and NASA. Today D-Wave is building a 2000 qubit quantum computer for US based Temporal Defense Systems.

In January 2017 D-Wave announced they will open-source their software. They are eyeing a future where the development and release of new quantum computing applications will happen faster and have a greater impact on our world of tomorrow.

Shortly after this interview, Haig was appointed Officer to the Order of Canada for his exceptional achievements and dedication to the venture capital industry and technology sector in Canada.

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