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IonQ goes big in quantum computing’s numbers game

Bragging rights in quantum computing, like quantum mechanics itself, can get fuzzy. Take today’s claim from IonQ that it’s creating “the world’s most powerful quantum computer.”

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.

Taken at face value, that would take some of the steam out of this week’s announcement by Honeywell that its quantum computing system achieved a quantum volume of 128. Which took some of the steam out of IBM’s announcement in August that it reached a quantum volume of 64. And IBM is the company that came up with the metric.

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 approach is particularly well-suited for solving problems ranging from breaking (or protecting) cryptographic codes, to formulating the molecular structures for new materials and medicines, to optimizing complex systems such as traffic patterns and financial markets.

Players in the quantum computing game include heavy-hitters such as IBM, Google and Honeywell — as well as startups such as Maryland-based IonQ, California-based Rigetti and B.C.-based D-Wave Systems.

Different approaches are being used. IBM, Google and Rigetti are focusing on superconducting logic gates; IonQ uses trapped-ion technology; and D-Wave relies on quantum annealing.

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.

Last year, IBM’s 53-qubit computer was touted as the world’s most powerful quantum processor, while Google claimed “quantum supremacy” with its own 54-qubit machine. And the ante is repeatedly being upped: Last month, IBM said it would pass the 1,000-qubit mark in 2023 and aim for a million-qubit computer over the longer term.

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.

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Quantum computing goes public at Amazon

Eight months after unveiling its Amazon Braket quantum computing platform, Amazon Web Services says the cloud-based service is officially open for business.

In a video that pokes a bit of fun at the weirdness of quantum concepts, Bill Vass, vice president for AWS technology, says Braket serves as a “launch pad for people to go explore quantum computing.”

In contrast to the rigid one-or-zero realm of classical computing, Braket and similar platforms take advantage of the fuzziness of quantum algorithms, in which quantum bits — or “qubits” — can represent multiple values simultaneously until the results are read out.

Quantum computing is particularly well-suited for tackling challenges ranging from cryptography — which serves as the foundation of secure online commerce — to the development of new chemical compounds for industrial and medical use. Some of the first applications could well be in the realm of system optimization, including the optimization of your financial portfolio.

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Supercomputers join the war on COVID-19

Summit supercomputer
Among the high-performance computing resources that will be made available for coronavirus research is Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit, the world’s fastest supercomputer. (ORNL Photo)

Less than a week after the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy organized a consortium to focus the power of artificial intelligence on addressing the coronavirus outbreak, another tech team is joining the fight — this time, armed with supercomputers and the cloud.

The COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium, organized by OSTP and IBM, has the Seattle area’s powerhouses of cloud computing, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft on board. Google Cloud is in on the effort as well.

There are also academic partners (MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), federal agency partners (NASA and the National Science Foundation) and five Department of Energy labs (Argonne, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Sandia).

Among the resources being brought to bear is the world’s most powerful supercomputer, the Oak Ridge Summit, which packs a 200-petaflop punch.

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U.S. officials seek advice on quantum computing

Quantum computer component
Components for IBM’s quantum computer are on display at a science conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

The U.S. Department of Energy is looking for experts to guide the White House and federal agencies through the weird world of quantum information science.

Today’s solicitation seeks nominations to the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, a panel that gets its mandate from legislation that President Donald Trump signed into law last December.

In addition to calling for the establishment of the advisory committee, the National Quantum Initiative Act sets aside $1.2 billion over five years to support research, development and workforce training relating to quantum information science.

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How long will men dominate computer science?

AI2 office
Semantic Scholar was pioneered at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. (AI2 Photo)

Today it’s mostly a man’s world in computer science — and a tally of the authors behind nearly 3 million research papers in the field suggests that could be the case for the rest of the 21st century.

The findings, reported by researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, point to how far the scientific community still has to go when it comes to gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

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What will quantum computing do for us?

Microsoft researchers
Microsoft’s Krysta Svore and David Reilly work on hardware for a quantum computer. (Microsoft Photo)

Quantum computer scientist Krysta Svore has a dream.

In her dream, she arrives at the week’s Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit at the University of Washington in a self-driving car that uses quantum computation to sharpen the precision of its GPS readings and optimize its route through traffic. “So I got here faster than I ever have before,” Svore said.

“I paid with my quantum credit card, which I know no one has stolen, because it’s fully secure,” she said  “On the way, I looked outside, and the air was crisp and clear. We have more carbon being extracted from the atmosphere. We have cleaner energy solutions. In fact, the country was just rewired with room-temperature superconducting cable, so we have lossless power transmission across the United States.”

In Svore’s dream, quantum computers have optimized the routes for transmitting that power, and have also come up with the chemistry for super-efficient storage batteries, turning solar and wind power into always-available electricity. “All of this is leading to a lower power bill for me,” she said.

Svore dreams of quantum technologies that can design new drugs on the molecular scale, map distant black holes with incredible precision and create new types of games that will help the next generation get used to how the weird world of quantum physics works.

“This was my dream last night,” Svore said. “The world was different. It was quantum. But in fact, this dream is here. The world is quantum. And it’s in our hands today to create this dream, to create it here in the Northwest.”

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Senator talks quantum with Microsoft’s president

Sen. Maria Cantwell and Microsoft's Brad Smith
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Microsoft President Brad Smith discuss the challenge of quantum computing during a fireside chat at the Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit at the University of Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

The Pacific Northwest may be known for tech icons like Microsoft and Amazon  but when U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was asked what advice she’d give to the researchers and executives who are trying to up their game when it comes to quantum computing, she invoked a slogan used by a totally different kind of industry leader.

“To borrow from another Northwest icon, ‘Just Do It,’ ” she said, referring to Nike, the Oregon-based sportswear powerhouse.

During today’s fireside chat with Microsoft President Brad Smith at the kickoff summit of a public-private consortium called the Northwest Quantum Nexus, Cantwell said quantum computing could become as much a part of the Pacific Northwest’s tech scene as Boeing and Microsoft, Amazon and Blue Origin.

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Northwest pioneers team up on quantum frontier

PNNL reasearchers
Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory plan to employ quantum computing to develop new materials for chemical applications. (Microsoft Azure via YouTube)

Experts in the weird and woolly field of quantum computing tend to concentrate on one slice of the challenge, whether it’s developing hardware, algorithms or applications — but in the region that’s home to Microsoft and Amazon, the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a new consortium is going after the whole stack.

We’re not talking about pancakes or sandwiches here. We’re talking about the Northwest Quantum Nexus, which is aiming to widen a network of quantum connections for researchers, developers and business leaders. The group, led by Microsoft Quantum, PNNL and UW, was formally unveiled today in advance of its inaugural summit this week at the university.

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Semantic Scholar spices up search engine

AI2 office
Semantic Scholar is one of the projects pioneered at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. (AI2 Photo)

You wouldn’t use an academic search engine to look for cat videos — but if there’s a video with cats in it that goes with an academic paper, the latest version of Semantic Scholar just might find it for you.

Semantic Scholar is the AI-based search engine that’s been developed by the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, specifically to sift through research for the most relevant results.

Over the past three years, the project has indexed more than 40 million research papers. Now AI2’s researchers have turned their algorithms loose to link those papers to associated presentation slides, Github code libraries, summaries of clinical trials, news articles, blogs, social-media postings and videos.

That includes a video with pictures of cats and dogs in it, tied to a paper titled “Unpaired Image-to-Image Translation Using Cycle-Consistent Adversarial Networks.”

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Russian computer crash in space? Nyet problem!

Space station telemetry
A black-and-white view of the International Space Station is overlaid with telemetry data in an image from an approaching Soyuz craft in 2014. (NASA TV)

One of the three computers on the Russian side of the International Space Station has crashed, but orbital operations are unaffected because the two other systems are in working order, Russia’s space agency reported today.

“To restore the computer to work, it is necessary to restart it,” Roscosmos said in a status report. That will happen on Nov. 8.

Roscosmos said the two other computer systems are sufficient for safe operation of the station indefinitely, but it wants the third one back online “to ensure the reliability” of next week’s scheduled docking with an uncrewed Russian Progress cargo spacecraft.

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