Pioneers with Patents

As D-Wave Systems perfects the quantum computer through ambitious experimentation, general counsel Tanya Rothe handles the firm’s intellectual property concerns

When the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab wanted to take its experiments in AI to a new level, it turned to D-Wave Systems Inc. of Burnaby, British Columbia, for a quantum computer.

That’s because the laboratory, formed by Google and the NASA-associated Universities Space Research Association, needed a computer that had the potential to speed up applications beyond what contemporary technologies can deliver. And D-Wave Systems is the only company worldwide that offers such a product.

D-Wave’s quantum computer, called D-Wave Two, uses quantum physics to rapidly, tackle a complex problem and arrive at an outcome that satisfies all known variables, and it does so using minimal amounts of energy. In tests conducted last year, an independent researcher found that the quantum computer could function 3,600 times faster than a conventional computer. According to D-Wave, however, some problems can be solved as much as 50,000 times faster than they are with a conventional computer. The harder the problem, the greater the potential performance difference between the D-Wave computer and a standard one.

The Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab isn’t the first entity to take advantage of D-Wave’s technology: in 2011, the company sold its first computer to Lockheed Martin for use in the testing of aircraft designs and satellite systems.

5 Questions
with Tanya Rothe

1. Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
A lot of our people are driven by the idea that our machine will allow us to solve problems that just can’t be solved right now.

2. How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
I was hired to take our patenting to the next level—essentially, to ask, “What is everyone who builds a quantum computer in the future going to need?” When I started, we had about 20 US patents; now we have more than 90.

3. How do you cultivate innovation within your workforce?
You have to encourage the expression of ideas. You have to be willing to hear what everybody is saying down the line, even if it’s difficult because people don’t agree with what you’re doing.

4. What defines an innovative company in the 21st century?
Companies that are innovative are thinking not just about what will happen the next week or next month but about the big picture. Where might we go? Could we cure cancer?

5. Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
It’s hard to predict that. Back in the day, when we first had PCs, we didn’t envision computing on our phones. But we do know our machine is good at solving a particular math problem—optimization—and that problem underlies many fields. We hope we’ll be working with people in those fields to help us apply the technology. We need to connect with visionaries who can take us to the next level.

Founded in 1999 with the goal of making practical quantum computing a reality, D-Wave sees opportunities for its technology in numerous industries other than artificial intelligence and aerodynamics, including finance, research, and defense. And that, according to Tanya Rothe, general counsel and director of intellectual property, is what drives the majority of people working for the company. “It’s not so much the physics of the machine that drives us,” she says. “It’s the possibility to help humanity and change things in the world for the better.”

Rothe, who joined D-Wave in 2005, says that this approach is what she finds fulfilling about her job. “These people I’m working with actually do believe that what they’re doing every day is going to change our world for the better,” she says, “and that creates a very positive working environment.”

It also keeps the company innovating. For the first five years of its existence, D-Wave gathered intellectual property related to quantum computing, primarily from European universities. “The company wanted to find the perfect qubit,” Rothe says, referring to a quantum bit, the building block of a quantum computer.

By the time Rothe joined D-Wave, it had changed direction. “The company realized it was never going to find the perfect qubit and just wanted to make something that would work, even if it was an imperfect machine,” she says.

D-Wave changed course and built its own computer, but it didn’t stop there. In 2011, it expanded its applications team to use D-Wave Two to develop applications for a broad range of complex problems such as machine learning, web searching, speech recognition, and planning and scheduling. And the company is still looking to improve its product. Currently, D-Wave Two uses the interactions of 512 qubits, but interactions of 2,048 qubits are expected in the next couple of years.

Today, Rothe says, while others in the field are still focused on building the perfect qubit, D-Wave Systems is focused on building the perfect machine—and that requires constant ongoing innovation. “The problems we’re dealing with are things no one has ever thought of as being problems solvable by computers, so we have to come up with ideas and take approaches no one else has even thought about,” she says.

Rothe—who had always hoped to combine dual interests in science and law, and thus obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a law degree from the University of British Columbia—feels she contributes in her own way. “I might not be the person coming up with the ideas for how we build a better machine, but what I can do is understand what the scientists and engineers are talking about and communicate it on the law and business side,” she says. “I bridge the gap.”  _a