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GeekWire

Public-private partnership builds quantum supply chain

Dare we say it? Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has teamed up with IonQ to come up with a method for producing barium ions for quantum computing that could lead to … yes, that’s right, a quantum leap.

The public-private partnership could open up a new avenue for developing more resilient, more powerful hardware for trapped-ion quantum computers. The key technology involves using barium ions as the foundation for qubits, the quantum equivalent of binary bits in classical computing.

“IonQ’s work with PNNL to secure the domestic supply chain of IonQ’s quantum computing qubits is a fundamental step in the mass commercialization of quantum computing,” IonQ’s president and CEO, Peter Chapman, said today in a news release. “Qubits are at the core of our quantum computers, and this collaboration with PNNL lays the foundation for us to scale manufacturing of our systems.”

The partners say PNNL’s production process will provide a steady supply of barium-based qubits, using a microscopic smidgen of source material. That should make it possible for IonQ to reduce the size of core system components, which should in turn make it easier to network quantum computers.

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Cosmic Tech

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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GeekWire

Amazon exec becomes quantum pioneer at IonQ

IonQ CEO Peter Chapman
Peter Chapman says there are parallels between his previous work and his current job as CEO at IonQ, a quantum computing company. (IonQ Photo)

How does a guy go from being the engineering director for Amazon Prime to serving as the CEO of a quantum computer company? It’s a classical move for Peter Chapman, the president and CEO of IonQ, which provides the firepower for Microsoft’s recently announced Azure Quantum cloud computing platform.

Quantum computing promises to address the same kinds of optimization problems that Chapman had to deal with for Amazon’s next-day deliveries, but on a grand scale. It also doesn’t hurt that Chapman previously worked for futurist Ray Kurzweil, or that he believes quantum computers provide the only path to strong, human-like artificial intelligence.

“I really like that kind of bleeding edge,” Chapman told GeekWire.

Get the full story on GeekWire.