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Avoiding traffic jams and surviving tsunamis

Quantum computers promise an enormous increase in computing power. Volkswagen is exploring new application areas together with D-Wave, a pioneer in this revolutionary technology, and Google.

Two Data:Labs in the Volkswagen Group deal with the subject of quantum computing: San Francisco and Munich

The subject of discussion sounded unusual enough: “Unleashing the potential of quantum machines.” Yet almost even more remarkable was the composition of the panel that was to discuss quantum computing on the large stage of Volkswagen’s CEBIT booth on Tuesday: Markus Hoffmann from Google in Munich, Volkswagen’s CIO Martin Hofmann and Bo Ewald, President of D-Wave, a Canadian pioneer in this revolutionary technology. An impressive research alliance that jointly presented itself for the first time in this form. And which Bo Ewald fired up at CEBIT with a good helping of “can do” spirit by exclaiming: “Let’s try it, let’s just do it!”

It seems that a lot of convincing still needs to be done – quantum computing is regarded as a special discipline in computer technology. That’s because the technical fundamentals are demanding. However, many experts believe the benefits from this new type of computer will be groundbreaking. “We can use it to improve the life of people and their mobility – in any city in the world,” said Volkswagen’s Martin Hofmann at CEBIT.  

Data scientist Christian Seidel finds all possible solutions to a problem with quantum computers - and tests them all at the same time

Similar words can be heard on the subject at Volkswagen’s Data:Lab in Munich. Alongside the Code:Lab in San Francisco. Munich is Volkswagen’s second major location for research on this subject. Data Scientist Christian Seidel is pleased to explain there what a quantum computer actually is to anyone who asks. Whereas all of today’s conventional computers work on the basis of binary numbers, i.e. the smallest unit of information (either “0” or “1”), quantum computers use qubits. “This unit is a superposition of the states 1 and 0 and all that lie between them,” says Christian Seidel. That may sound confusing to laypersons, but it gives rise to fascinating possibilities, as Seidel explains: “All ways of solving a problem can be tried out simultaneously. If a large number of qubits can be successfully interlaced with each other in a stable way, that would result in huge exponential computing power, which would open up completely new application areas.”

  • First practical application
  • Premiere in Europe
  • Global research network

Some IT companies are already developing practicable quantum computers, but only D-Wave Systems is able to offer a commercial model so far. At CEBIT 2017, the Canadian company teamed up with Volkswagen to present the D-Wave 2000Q™ quantum computer whose processor connects 2,048 qubits with couplers. That enables astounding things: For example, data scientists and AI experts from Volkswagen have used D-Wave’s machines to initiate optimization of traffic flows in the Chinese mega city Beijing. The data from a few hundred taxis was used to successfully calculate ideal routes taxis can use to avoid traffic jams.

Christian Seidel voices his delight about this initial collaboration: “The response was positive across the board and stimulated further projects.” The quantum computer maker also benefits from cooperating with the Group, as Bo Ewald from D-Wave notes: “With its algorithm for optimizing traffic flows in Beijing, Volkswagen has developed the first proto-application you can even use to explain the benefits and potential of quantum computers to your parents. It’s not an esoteric thought experiment but demonstrates how our technology solves everyday problems. This practical approach from Volkswagen points the way for us in developing the next hardware generation and our interfaces.”  

When D-Wave Systems and Volkswagen issued an invitation in April to the first developer and user symposium for quantum computing in Europe, the list of participants read like a who’s who of the quantum computer scene. Professor Hidetoshi Nishimori from the Tokyo Institute of Technology spoke about the latest progress in basic research, which was followed by talks by representatives from the European Commission, NASA, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Lockheed Martin and Airbus.  

Christian Seidel and his colleagues from Volkswagen experienced an unexpected aha moment when Masayuki Ohzeki from Tohoku University stepped on stage at the conference. The Japanese researcher presented an algorithm which, thanks to a quantum computer, is able to calculate the ideal escape routes in the event of a tsunami – in real time. The program uses the GPS data from the smartphones of millions of people affected to determine an individual’s exact position and calculate how he or she can reach the nearest safe place – taking into account how acute the traffic situation is and the possible movements of people fleeing.

The basis for this highly complex calculation is Volkswagen’s algorithm for optimizing traffic flows in Beijing. Christian Seidel notes: “We naturally shared our results in scientific publications. But I wouldn’t have expected them to help create a solution for a completely different problem at the other end of the world. That’s just great.”

Applications are to persuade skeptics

Bo Ewald says: “We’re at a turning point, a time similar to the stage of development computer technology had reached in the 1950s with the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors, which are still in use to this day.” Companies like IBM put the first computers of this new generation on the market back then, but applications were rare. “People at the time didn’t really know what to do with them. There was no word processing, no spreadsheets, no map services,” says Bo Ewald. Then a small group of smart people developed sensible software tools. Very soon, automotive engineers were able to calculate the ideal aerodynamics, explore lightweight designs or optimize engine power, for instance.

It’s similar today. Quantum computers have already proven in a raft of applications that they deliver practical results – in optimizing traffic and routes to escape tsunamis, as well as the air resistance of a car’s rear-view mirrors. One highly interesting application is simulation of batteries in electric vehicles. The processes at the microscopic level are so complex here that experts still have to build physical prototypes at present, which costs time and money. Quantum computers might enable the battery chemistry to be simulated realistically – a crucial step in further developing new batteries for e-mobility of the future.

“Why is a car maker like Volkswagen investing in such basic research now?” That particular question from a visitor to the trade fair was easy to answer for Volkswagen’s CIO Martin Hofmann at the CEBIT talk. “I believe in exponential technology. But the learning curve in this field is very long. And then there’s simply the risk that you’re stuck behind the wave when it rises.” Know-how in this field has to be built now and employees ought to get into this subject area now so that the group does not lag behind later. “We feel sure that the know-how we build today will give us a competitive edge,” said Martin Hofmann.