In a classical computer, bits of information are stored as either "0" or "1". Any working quantum computer would need to exploit the ability of quantum particles to also be in superpositions of both states. Such "qubits" can, in principle, allow a quantum computer to outperform a classical computer for certain tasks. D-Wave, which was founded in 1999 by the physicist Geordie Rose, says that its device has 16 qubits that are based on circuits made from two superconducting materials – aluminium and niobium.

Electrical circuits made from such materials are promising candidates for quantum computers because they can be made from thin films using conventional microchip fabrication technology. The difficulty, however, is connecting and controlling the qubits in such a way that they can be used to perform calculations. In particular, qubits rapidly lose the information they are holding by interacting with their surroundings.

D-Wave claims to have minimized this problem of “decoherence” using a novel version of a technique called adiabatic quantum computation, or AQC, which controls the computer in a slow and continuous manner. However, AQC itself has yet to be demonstrated experimentally, leaving many in the quantum computation community wondering exactly how Orion works.

“If they have achieved control over 16 bits they have done something exciting," says Andrew Steane, a physicist at Oxford University in the UK. However, Steane says that D-Wave's announcement came completely out of the blue and he remains highly sceptical until the company releases more information.