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Microsoft adds a new superposition to quantum team

Microsoft’s Azure Quantum cloud computing service will be adding a brand-new tool to its toolbox: Pasqal’s neutral-atom quantum processing system.

When the French company’s system becomes available later this year, it will provide a method for processing data that’s different from the other methods offered through Azure Quantum.

“Running algorithms on Pasqal’s neutral-atom hardware opens the door to unique capabilities no other quantum system offers,” Pasqal CEO and founder Georges-Olivier Reymond said in a news release.

Unlike the rigid one-or-zero approach of classical computing, quantum computing makes use of quantum bits, or qubits, that can essentially represent different states simultaneously until the results are read out.

Theoretically, the quantum approach should be able to solve certain types of problems, such as network optimization, much more quickly than the classical approach. The technology could open new frontiers in fields ranging from traffic planning to drug development to data encryption.

Azure Quantum — and other cloud-based services including Amazon Braket, IBM Quantum, D-Wave Leap and Google Quantum AI — are already experimenting with hybrid quantum algorithms and looking forward to the development of full-stack, general-purpose quantum computing systems.

The two main avenues for developing quantum hardware make use of superconducting circuits and ion traps. Pasqal takes a different approach, involving neutral atoms that are manipulated at room temperature with laser-powered optical “tweezers.”

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Microsoft says it’s made a crucial quantum leap

Microsoft says its researchers have found evidence of an exotic phenomenon that’s key to its plans to build general-purpose quantum computers.

The phenomenon, known as a Majorana zero mode, is expected to smooth the path for topological quantum computing — the technological approach that’s favored by Microsoft’s Azure Quantum program.

Quantum computing is a weird enough concept by itself: In contrast with the rigid one-or-zero world of classical computing, quantum computing juggles quantum bits, or qubits, that can represent ones and zeroes simultaneously until the results are read out.

Scientists say the quantum approach can solve certain types of problems — for example, network optimization or simulations of molecular interactions — far more quickly than the classical approach. Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and other cloud-based services are already using hybrid systems to bring some of the benefits of the quantum approach to applications ranging from drug development to traffic management.

At the same time, Microsoft and other companies are trying to build the hardware and software for “full-stack” quantum computing systems that can take on a far wider range of applications. Microsoft has chosen a particularly exotic technological strategy, which involves inducing quantum states on topological superconducting wires. To keep those quantum states stable, the wires would host Majorana zero modes localized at each end.

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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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Quantum computing venture leaps into the stock market

Burnaby, B.C.-based D-Wave Systems, the quantum computing company that counts Jeff Bezos among its investors and NASA among its customers, has struck a deal to go public with a $1.2 billion valuation.

The deal involves a combination with DPMC Capital, a publicly traded special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. It’s expected to bring in $300 million in gross proceeds from DPMC’s trust account, plus $40 million in gross proceeds from investors participating in a PIPE arrangement. (PIPE stands for “private investment in public equity.”)

Quantum computing takes advantage of phenomena at the quantum level, processing “qubits” that can represent multiple values simultaneously — as opposed to the one-or-zero paradigm of classical computing. The approach is theoretically capable of solving some types of problems much faster than classical computers.

Founded in 1999, D-Wave has focused on a type of technology called quantum annealing, which uses quantum computing principles and hardware to tackle tasks relating to network optimization and probabilistic sampling.

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How quantum tricks can ease a traffic jam in deep space

Microsoft has demonstrated how quantum-inspired algorithms can help smooth out Seattle’s snarled traffic, but can they solve NASA’s interplanetary data traffic jam? Initial results from a project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggests they can.

Microsoft’s Azure Quantum team says it’s been working with JPL to optimize the management of communications windows for the Deep Space Network. The network relies on giant radio antennas in California, Spain and Australia to handle communications with more than 30 space probes, including the James Webb Space Telescope and NASA’s Mars rovers.

Optimizing the schedule for communicating with all those probes requires intensive computer resources, especially because the DSN is having to deal with increasing demands for high-bandwidth data transmissions. “Capacity is a big pressure,” JPL’s Michael Levesque, deputy director of the DSN, said in a recent news release.

Fortunately, schedule optimization is one of the sweet spots for Azure Quantum’s algorithms.

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Quantum-style computing is getting real-world tests

Microsoft and KPMG are getting set to test Azure Quantum’s capabilities on the sorts of real-world problems that should give quantum computing an edge over traditional approaches.

Such problems have to do with optimizing systems and networks, such as where best to place cellular phone towers or how to allocate investments to match a client’s priorities relating to risks vs. rewards.

“Optimization problems are found in many industries and are often difficult to solve using traditional methods which can accelerate optimization,” Krysta Svore, general manager of Microsoft Quantum, explained today in a blog post. “Emulating these quantum effects on classical computers has led to the development of quantum-inspired optimization (QIO) algorithms that run on classical hardware.”

Such algorithms reflect the quantum perspective, in which information doesn’t necessarily take the form of rigid ones and zeroes but can instead reflect a range of values simultaneously during processing. The beauty of QIO algorithms is that they don’t need to run on honest-to-goodness quantum processors, which are still in their infancy.

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AWS’ quantum computing center is alive at Caltech

It’s been nearly two years since Amazon Web Services announced a quantum computing initiative that included the establishment of an AWS Center for Quantum Computing — and today AWS is opening the box, Schrödinger-style, to reveal that the center is alive and delving into quantum weirdness in a new building on Caltech’s campus in Pasadena, Calif.

Caltech says the two-story, 21,000-square-foot facility is the first corporate partnership building on its campus. “Day One” came in August, said Oskar Painter, a Caltech physics professor who’s leading the center.

“We’re in the building,” Painter, the AWS center’s head of quantum hardware, told GeekWire. “Our people have been working there, which has been great. Obviously, we would have been remote regardless, given the COVID [pandemic], but it’s been a really great time to come back and see each other, and celebrate this facility.”

The center will bring together AWS developers and academic researchers, not just from Caltech but from other institutions around the country, to solve problems standing in the way of a quantum computing revolution. Among the collaborators are researchers from the University of Washington, Stanford, MIT, Harvard and other computer science powerhouses.

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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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Northwest researchers get in on a quantum leap

Microsoft, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington are playing supporting roles in the White House’s $1 billion effort to advance research into artificial intelligence and quantum information science.

Those three organizations have already been working together through the Northwest Quantum Nexus to develop the infrastructure for quantum computers, which promise to open up new possibilities in fields ranging from chemistry to systems optimization and financial modeling.

The initiatives announced today are likely to accelerate progress toward the development of commercial-scale quantum computers, Chetan Nayak, Microsoft’s general manager for quantum hardware, said in a blog posting.

“Today marks one of the U.S. government’s largest investments in the field,” he said. “It is also a noteworthy moment for Microsoft, which is providing scientific leadership in addition to expertise in workforce development and technology transfer.”

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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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