Software developers in a conference call, we try to get a quantum computer, a dynamic successor to today’s supercomputers, to do some of its magic. They want to see how well the experimental machine can reproduce a simple pattern of bars and stripes.
After the team sets up some software code, a scientist with dreadlocks clicks a button to put the computer, located in a lab outside of Denver, into action. A laser generates a magnetic pulse in the machine that sets atoms in motion inside a vacuum chamber – the brain of the computer, sort of.
Engineers with Zapata calculation, a startup that helps corporate clients create algorithms for use on quantum computers, is performing the test. Company leases use of machine owned by industrial giant Honeywell, which sees quantum computing as a huge business opportunity.
And recently, that opportunity – which required years of painstaking tinkering with the necessary technology – is starting to generate revenue. It’s time Honeywell’s quantum computer has been full for months. “You can talk about all the innovations you have and the quality of your technology, but if no one is willing to pay for it, what’s its value?” said Darius Adamczyk, CEO of Honeywell.
The half-dozen companies that are serious about developing quantum computers, including Google, IBM, and Intel, as well as startups such as Rejections and IonQ, reach an important new phase: customers line up and pay to use their machines.
While quantum computers are still far inferior to today’s basic desktops, the experiences give customers a taste of what’s possible. The challenge will be to improve machines enough in the years to come so that they produce better results at a lower cost than any other type of computer.
Quantum computers are designed to harness the weird and powerful physical properties of so-called qubits (pronounced “cubits”), or quantum bits. Traits such as “layering” and “entanglement,” when combined with “interference,” have the potential to solve problems in science and industry that are otherwise intractable, even for advanced supercomputers.
Experts expect full-fledged quantum computers to be ready in a decade or more. But in the meantime, the machines under construction could offer an advantage – a “quantum advantage,” as IBM likes to say – in certain scenarios. from 2023.
The quantum computing industry is currently small in terms of revenue, but it could grow very strongly over time. The total quantum hardware rental market is expected to reach $ 9 billion in 2030, up from $ 260 million today, according to research firm Tractica.
The real value, however, lies in the potential business opportunities that quantum technology is about to unlock. For this reason, and for fear of falling behind rivals like China, the federal government and private companies promised in August pay $ 1 billion in the emerging industry.
Big tech companies are already vying for quantum dominance. And those who started early have a growing list of clients; IBM there are more than 130 in business, academia and government, for example. “Some people ask, ‘When are we going to have a real industry? When will the commercial quantum be real? IBM Research Director Dario Gil said when I visited his mad scientist-looking lab in September. “It has already started.”
Some people ask, “When are we going to have a real industry? When will the commercial quantum be real? It has already started.
Dario Gil, IBM Research Director
The behemoths of cloud computing are hanging on to the trend. Microsoft, which works on its own moonshot quantum computing hardware, began offering select Azure customers remote access to quantum computers from other partner companies in May. “We’re making this technology truly accessible and lowering the barriers to adoption,” says Julie Love, Quantum Computing Business Development Manager at Microsoft.
Amazon opened the Quantum Gates in August to all of its huge customers Amazon Cloud computing division of web services. The offering, which like Microsoft’s uses partner hardware, has made it easier than ever to access the technology for nearly everyone.
Another member of the Big Tech club, Google, made waves last fall by claiming to have realized “quantum supremacy“, A term that describes when a quantum computer outperforms a classic supercomputer to a specialized task. Although this result is contested by its rival IBM, he talks about the technical battle between companies competing for their own supremacy in the nascent industry.
Recently, Google used a 12-qubit quantum computer to simulate a chemical reaction involving hydrogen and nitrogen atoms, a record achievement that honored the cover from Journal Science. The previous record holder was IBM, which three years earlier had modeled a molecule half the size on a six-qubit machine (more qubits means more sophisticated modeling).
Such a data crunch, in general, could one day lead to improved batteries and carbon capture technologies, which is why companies like Volkswagen (a Google partner), Exxon Mobil (IBM) and Daimler (both) are so interested in technology.
Earlier this year, Honeywell, a dark horse, surprised many by breaking into the quantum computing scene with a version of its own technology. The company uses a different hardware approach that replaces the specially designed supercooled silicon chips preferred by Google and IBM with laser-guided atoms in the guts of the machine.
JPMorgan Chase, German DHL shipping titan and pharmaceutical giant Merck are the latest big names to join Honeywell’s public customer list. Kam Chana, director of IT platforms at Merck, says his company wants to use the computer for early stage R&D so that it can produce newer, more efficient drugs and distribute drugs more efficiently at lower cost.
Marco Pistoia, who heads research at JPMorgan’s “future lab”, says quantum computing could improve his bank’s risk analysis, a major concern. Goldman Sachs, Wells fargo, and Visa are also exploring technology, particularly for pricing complex financial derivatives and strengthening cybersecurity.
Stefan Woerner, IBM’s Quantum Applications Manager, discusses the possibility of using quantum computers for smarter vehicle routing, safer management of investment portfolios, as well as a better understanding of protein folding, a complex field of biology with medical implications.
With their experience of bars and scratches, Zapata’s team has to wait hours to receive final results from Honeywell’s computer, which in these early days of quantum is painfully slow. When they finally receive the finished product, they compare it to what an ideal quantum computer would have produced, to gauge the limits of new technology in machine learning. The verdict? The pattern is as close to perfect as the Zapata team could have hoped to see.
Such trials, while simplistic and laborious today, could potentially result in better techniques for detecting financial fraud or diagnosing diseases from MRI scans. In the meantime, quantum computers tend to make mistakes, and accounting for and correcting these errors is the industry’s top priority.
Yet despite the current shortcomings, getting real quantum value is inevitable, says Chris Savoie, CEO of Zapata, and it will happen sooner or later. “If you don’t prepare for this and do these experiences now, you won’t be able to make up for it.”
Talking about quantum
Like many futuristic fields, quantum computing has its own complex vocabulary. Here are some key terms to know.
Not the biblical unit of measure, although it is pronounced the same way. Qubits are “quantum bits”, a turbocharged version of the bits of classical computing. Composed of atoms, photons or other materials, they are the basis of the exponential potential of quantum computing.
While classic bits, or “binary digits”, encompass only two states – often represented by “0” and “1” – qubits can take any nuance between the two. Oddly enough, qubits can only maintain this state when no one is watching.
This flavor of layering describes a shared state in which the fate of one qubit depends on that of another. Quantum computer makers hope they can harness the tangle to someday get blazingly fast parallel processing power in their machines.
Quantum computers today are not noisy per se, but they are error prone (or in scientific jargon, “noisy”). This is partly because qubits are very sensitive, even to the slightest disturbances, like a gazing photon.
A theoretical milestone that describes a quantum computer performing a calculation that no conventional computer can reproduce in a reasonable amount of time. Google claims to have achieved it last year, but IBM contends otherwise.
The battle for dominance in the nascent quantum computing market is fierce. Here are some of the main players:
Last year, the search giant said it had taken a major step forward: “quantum supremacy”. But since then he has lost prominent members of his quantum team.
Big Blue has become one of the leaders of these new professional machines. He recently set himself a new goal: to create a million qubit machine by 2030, more powerful than any machine currently available.
The industrial giant’s “trapped-ion” hardware departs from superconducting qubit machines pursued by IBM and Google.
The development of a quantum computer by the company has been slow. In March, it began offering cloud computing customers access to other people’s machines.
In 2018, the Chinese company began offering access to a 12-qubit quantum processor through its Aliyun division. US policymakers are alarmed by China’s quantum gains.
A version of this article appears in theDecember 2020 / January 2021 issueofFortunewith the title, “Quantum enters a new dimension.”