IBM and Cleveland Clinic today unveiled the first quantum computer dedicated solely to research in health care and life sciences — a sleek cube of glass and metal that’s likely to generate sci-fi movie concepts for years to come.
Researchers hope IBM Quantum System One will eventually generate new biomedical discoveries as well.
“This includes quantum machine learning to design more efficient immunotherapies and designing quantum-accelerated models to predict drug combinations,” Jeanette Garcia, senior research manager of quantum computational science at IBM, said in an emailed statement.
The potential applications extend beyond medical research.
Robotic life imitated art this weekend at a telepresence contest in California, and Germany’s Team NimbRo is $5 million richer as a result. The payoff came at the end of the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition in Long Beach, sponsored by Japan’s All Nippon Airways and organized by the XPRIZE foundation.
Ninety-nine teams signed up for the Avatar XPRIZE in 2018, kicking off rounds of competition that led to the Nov. 5 finals at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. The robots had to weigh less than 160 kilograms (350 pounds) and be controlled wirelessly.
This weekend, 17 finalist teams from 10 countries brought in their robotic telepresence systems to perform a series of remote tasks such as traversing an 80-foot-long obstacle course strewn with boulders, flipping switches, using a power drill to unscrew a bolt, and selecting the roughest rock in a collection based strictly by feel.
For the finals, the avatars were controlled by outside judges from a separate room, rather than by team members. Points were awarded based on how quickly and how well the tasks were performed. NimbRo’s robot did all 10 tasks in five minutes and 50 seconds.
A robot built by a French team called Pollen Robotics accomplished all the tasks in 10 minutes and 50 seconds, earning the $2 million second prize. Boston-based Team Northeastern came away with the $1 million third prize. The other $2 million of the prize purse was awarded last year to the teams advancing to the finals.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems has topped off a banner year for investment in commercial fusion projects with a $1.8 billion funding round for a concept that takes advantage of super-powerful superconducting magnets.
When you add in funding for other ventures, total private investment in fusion over the past year amounts to more than $2.7 billion.
Among the investors: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who’s backing Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems, or CFS; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who’s supporting Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion; PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who’s investing in Everett, Wash.-based Helion Energy; and Google, which is getting behind California-based TAE Technologies.
CFS said its Series B funding round, led by Tiger Global Management, will provide enough capital to get its SPARC fusion machine up and running in Devens, Mass., in cooperation with MIT. In addition to Gates, the list of investors includes Google, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Soros Fund Management LLC and actor Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition.
“The world is ready to make big investments in commercial fusion as a key part of the global energy transition. This diverse group of investors includes a spectrum of capital from energy and technology companies to venture capitalists, hedge funds, and university endowments that believe in fusion as a large-scale solution to decarbonize the planet,” CFS CEO Bob Mumgaard said in today’s news release.
Helion is revving up its quest to commercialize nuclear fusion power with a $500 million funding round led by tech investor Sam Altman.
Altman, who’s the CEO of OpenAI and the former president of the Y Combinator startup accelerator, will help raise another $1.7 billion if Helion reaches key milestones on the way to producing a net electricity gain by 2024.
Fusion power takes advantage of the nuclear chain reaction that takes place in the sun, unleashing massive amounts of energy in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. The process is more energetic and potentially less polluting than the more familiar type of nuclear power, produced in fission reactors.
More than five years after it began, the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition is complete — and for both of the top competitors, converting CO2 into concrete turned out to be the winning strategy.
The carbon conversion contest was launched in 2015 to encourage the development of technologies that turn CO2 into useful products, with the effect of reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.
“Flipping CO2 emissions into valuable products is now a proven, successful strategy to build a better world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said today in a news release announcing the winners.
Concrete is an attractive target for decarbonization because the current production process is said to account for 7% of global CO2 emissions.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is putting $100 million into a different kind of “X”: An XPRIZE competition to develop new technologies for sucking carbon dioxide out of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.
Musk and his foundation will provide the prize money for XPRIZE Carbon Removal, an incentive-based competition that’ll be open to teams around the world.
Teams will be required to create pilot systems capable of removing 1 ton of carbon dioxide per day, and show that their systems can be scaled up economically to the gigaton level.
Reducing CO2 is considered a key requirement for heading off the worst effects of the greenhouse effect and climate change. Total annual emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide currently amount to about 33 gigatons. The long-term goal for the XPRIZE teams should be to contribute to removing 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050.
“We want to make a truly meaningful impact,” he said. “Carbon negativity, not neutrality. The ultimate goal is scalable carbon extraction that is measured based on the ‘fully considered cost per ton,’ which incudes the environmental impact.”
The 1,640-foot (500-meter) test run in the Nevada desert lasted only about 15 seconds, reaching a top speed of merely 107 mph (172 kilometers per hour). Nevertheless, it was a cause for celebration on the part of the first-ever hyperloop passengers — Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop’s co-founder and chief techology officer; and Sara Luchian, the venture’s director of passenger experience.
“When we started in a garage over six years ago, the goal was simple — to transform the way people move,” Giegel said in a news release issued after the Nov. 8 trip down the DevLoop test track. “Today, we took one giant leap toward that ultimate dream, not only for me, but for all of us who are looking towards a moonshot right here on Earth.”
Luchian said it was only natural that Virgin Hyperloop executives would take what was billed as humanity’s first hyperloop trip after conducting 400 test runs without people on board. “What better way to design the future than to actually experience it firsthand?” she asked.
“With today’s successful test, we have shown that this spirit of innovation will in fact change the way people everywhere live, work, and travel in the years to come,” he said after the run.
The cushy XP-2 vehicle is a scaled-down version of the production vehicle, which is being designed to seat up to 28 passengers.
Pegasus XP-2 made use of electric propulsion and magnetic levitation to zoom smoothly down the DevLoop’s low-pressure test tube. Giegel told The New York Times that the ride didn’t feel “that much different than accelerating in a sports car.”
Back in 2013, Musk laid out a plan for a network of hyperloop tubes that could cut the travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles to 35 minutes. At first, he left it to others to commercialize the idea. But in 2016, he founded a venture known as the Boring Company to build somewhat less ambitious underground transit networks.
Several other ventures are trying to commercialize the hyperloop concept, for cargo as well as passenger applications, but Virgin Hyperloop has the highest profile. The company has raised more than $400 million in investment, and last month it announced that it would set up a Hyperloop Certification Center in West Virginia.
In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a roadmap for moving ahead with hyperloop networks, tunneling technologies and other novel transit concepts. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the roadmap will “help address legitimate public concerns about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation.”
There could be big changes ahead in transportation policy: Right now, it looks as if President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for a “second great rail revolution” will focus on conventional high-speed rail. But if hyperloop ventures can grab a bigger share of the spotlight, as Virgin Hyperloop did this weekend, they just might grab a bigger piece of the pie as well.
A year ago, you might have expected the rollout of Boom Supersonic’s XB-1 prototype jet to be a hands-on affair, attended by throngs of employees and enthusiasts.
Then COVID-19 hit.
As a result, today’s big reveal played out mostly as a hands-off affair, with the XB-1 rolling out under a sullen sky while the music swelled at the climax of a 45-minute video. It wasn’t computer-generated graphics, but the rollout had that feel to it.
Despite the social distancing, today’s event proved that Boom Supersonic’s vision is more than CGI — thanks to the efforts of nearly 150 employees at the company’s facilities in Centennial, Colo., and more than $140 million in funding from venture capital firms and high-profile investors such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
If that plan holds, XB-1 will be the first commercial-purpose supersonic jet to take to the skies since the last Concorde flew in 2003.
The XB-1’s fuselage is longer than that of a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet (71 vs. 60 feet) but its delta wings aren’t nearly as wide (21 vs. 44 feet). Carbon-composite construction and 3-D printing cut down on weight and complexity. Shoemaker said the plane has cameras mounted on its nose gear that’ll give pilots the visibility they need without having to employ a Concorde-style swiveling nose.
It’s powered by three tried-and-true GE J85-15 engines, but to cut down its carbon footprint, it’ll use fuel produced from captured CO2. “We’re going to get to zero from day one,” Boom CEO Blake Scholl promised during today’s festivities.
The XB-1 is a one-of-a-kind prototype, designed to fly at Mach 1.3 but not designed for commercial service. Instead, it’ll serve as a testbed for Boom’s bigger Overture airplane: Currently still on the drawing boards, the nearly 200-foot-long Overture is meant to fly 65 to 88 passengers at speeds of up to Mach 2.2.
Scholl said going supersonic would cut Seattle-to-Tokyo air travel time from 10 hours to four and a half hours. That’s why Japan Air Lines has already signed up to buy some of the Overture jets when they’re ready.
The current timetable calls for Boom to start building Overture in 2022, with rollout scheduled for 2025 and the start of service set for 2027. Boom’s past development schedules have slipped, however, and Overture’s timeline is likely to face delays as well.
Will Boom be the first to make a splash in the supersonic market? Scholl certainly has big ambitions. “We’re sizing the initial factory to do between five and 10 aircraft a month, and I think it’s very likely that we’ll need to build a second factory and double that up,” he said.
Just this week, Boeing said the prospects for commercial airplane sales look dimmer than they did a year ago, largely due to the pandemic. But Scholl sounds much more bullish — or should we say, boomish.
“When you look at how many people are flying on routes that we can fly with today’s regulations, with a big speedup, we need to build a lot of Overtures,” he said. “In fact, we think we’re going to make more Overtures than Boeing has made 787s.“
To back up that claim, IonQ is turning to a metric known as quantum volume. That’s a multidimensional yardstick that combines stats ranging from the number of quantum bits (a.k.a. qubits) in a computer to the system’s error rate and cross-qubit connectivity.
In today’s news release, IonQ says its next-generation system will feature 32 “perfect” qubits with low gate errors, penciling out to a quantum volume value in excess of 4 million.
The numbers game highlights the fact that the competition in quantum computing is just getting started, more than two decades after computer scientists laid out the theoretical foundations for the field.
Under the best of circumstances, quantum computing is hard to wrap your brain around. Rather than dealing with the cold, hard ones and zeroes of classical computing, the quantum paradigm relies on qubits that can represent multiple values at the same time.
The important thing to keep in mind is that different technologies from different providers (including IonQ, Rigetti and D-Wave) are being offered on the quantum cloud platforms offered by Amazon and Microsoft. IBM and Google, meanwhile, provide their quantum tools as options on their own cloud computing platforms.
Developers who want to make use of quantum data processing aren’t likely to go out and buy a dedicated quantum computer. They’re more likely to choose from the cloud platforms’ offerings — just as a traveler who wants to rent a snazzy car from Hertz or from Avis can go with a Corvette or a Mustang.
That’s where metrics make the difference. If you can show potential customers that your quantum machine has more horsepower, you’re likely to do better in an increasingly competitive market.
In contrast, IonQ emphasizes qubit quality over quantity. “We’re not going to throw a million qubits on the table unless we can do millions of operations,” co-founder and chief scientist Chris Monroe told me last December.
Peter Chapman, the former Amazon exec who now serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said quantum computing should prove its worth well before the million-qubit mark.
“In a single generation of hardware, we went from 11 to 32 qubits, and more importantly, improved the fidelity required to use all 32 qubits,” Peter Chapman, the former Amazon exec who now serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said in today’s news release.
“Depending on the application, customers will need somewhere between 80 and 150 very high-fidelity qubits and logic gates to see quantum advantage,” Chapman said. “Our goal is to double or more the number of qubits each year.”
IonQ’s 32-qubit hardware will be rolled out initially as a private beta, and then will be made commercially available via Amazon Braket and Microsoft Azure Quantum.
As we await the next raise in the numbers game, it might be a good idea to set up a trusted authority to take charge of the standards and benchmarking process for quantum computing — similar to how the TOP500 has the final word on which supercomputers lead the pack.
Such an authority could definitively determine who has the world’s most powerful quantum computer. Or would that violate the weird rules of quantum indeterminacy?
Update for 3:35 p.m. PT Oct. 5: We’ve added more precise language and links to describe the distinctions between different types of quantum computing technology.