[Boston/May 2, 2023] — Its mainstream profile is a bit more modest than in recent years, but quantum computing today continues to inch forward, promising future breakthroughs based on the stranger properties of electrons, atoms, ions and photons.
Quantum computing advocates project a time when the binary-state bits of classical computing are surpassed – or complemented, in the case of the more forgiving futurists — by quantum qubits capable of handling multiple states. And venture funding is active. McKinsey estimates in 2022 investors put $2.35 billion into quantum tech start-ups. Recent weeks have seen investments on several continents. These include:
*Dell Technologies Capital announcing funding a $12M seed extension investment in Quantum Source, an Israel-based company pursing photonic quantum technologies;
*Molten Ventures, Altair, the National Security Strategic Investment Fund and others announcing a $16.5 million round for UK-based Riverlane, which creates software and hardware to address the problem of galloping error rates as machines scale up their qubit counts – a basic but incomplete measure of quantum processing; and
*Funding by ParticleX for Quantier, an off-shoot of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said to fashion laser lights to control atoms at room temperature.
The activity of governments in such funding is common and understandable. For them the risk of misspent money is outweighed by the risk of other countries gaining a potentially key technological edge.
The startups need funding, but also increasingly need to find immediate use cases, as the difficulties facing some quantum pioneers highlights. D-Wave and Rigetti Computing, both of which turned to SPAC vehicles to ply the public markets, have found themselves with somewhat curtailed money ramps, as disclosed in recent financial reports.
But enthusiasm is still strong, as witnessed at last week’s Quantum.Tech 2023 conference here. Emergent themes held that this is a global phenomenon important to nation states of all sizes, that qubit counts matter less than qubit quality, and that vendors and users alike are looking to move past the present era of noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) computing – that is to create more capable qubits in greater numbers.
Quantum computing scorecards are more than ever a jumble of types, as small labs come forward with completely different approaches to basic quantum computing processes. Where not that long ago superconducting and trapped-ion approaches were the main game, processing modalities based on photonics, neutral atoms, and silicon-based spin methods now vie for attention.
Marathona est, non sprint
Manfred Rieck, VP, Individual Software Development, Deutsche Bahn, sees quantum efforts feeding other advanced computing efforts. He spoke at the Boston event on quantum computing, picturing it as the next part of multinationals’ tech stacks that may also include AI, IoT, big data and digital twins.
He suggested, for example, that quantum computers could help in building fine-grain simulations for digital twins that design and operate transportation in the future, speaking with us in an interview.
Rieck marks progress of late, as quantum efforts combining the work of both physicists and computer scientists move out of the university, and into industry.
Moreover, he sees the struggles of some quantum players as a natural thing that happens with quantum-tech startups.
“I think companies are coming in and going out of the game and sometimes it works and sometimes not. At the same time, you see more and more interest in what happens in large industries,” he said. For vendors and buyers alike, he advised, the focus should be less on ‘quantum’ and more on business benefits.
As part of that, customers will look to companies that have long-term management skills to complement their belief in quantum computing’s radical promise.
One notion Rieck disavows is that quantum computing is entering a down phase, one some liken to the season of “winter.” He prefers the runner’s analogy – the quantum journey is a marathon, not a sprint, he told Quantum Tech attendees.
Hybridization erit belli
For Florian Neukart, who was deeply involved in some early Volkswagen AG quantum work, hybridization is the next step. Hybridization combines quantum computing along with classical high-performance computing, according to Neukart, who now serves as chief product officer at Terra Quantum, which provides “Quantum as a Service” in the form of algorithmic, hardware and security offerings.
“When we say hybrid, it means combining these two efficiently using an operating system using hybrid algorithms that sit on top,” said Neukart, who took part in a panel discussion on quantum’s path to commercialization at Quantum Tech 2023.
The growth in approaches based on hybrids can be drowned out by the quantum technology community’s natural preoccupation with quantum processing chips. But they bear watching.
“For the current era, where the quantum computing devices are error-prone and not perfect, or as big as we want them to be, hybridization will be a strategy, and it will carry on into the future,” he told us. Examples of hybridization in action are recently developed quantum algorithms St. Gallen, Switzerland-based Terra Quantum undertook with German specialty chemical firm Evonik Industries to improve fluid mixing simulations and shape optimization for production parts of mixers.
Neukart agrees with the contention that quantum computing’s near future will be more influenced by computer science community members than in the past.
“People in classical high-performance computing really know how to scale systems, how to operate these systems cost effectively,” he said. That same community also is familiar with the work involved in integrating new algorithms into an existing environment – which is also among the many hurdles the quantum computing crew is now facing.
Hortus curae tuae
A software platform intended to put quantum processing in the hands of a broad group of users is the objective of Austin, Texas-based Strangeworks. At the Boston event, the five-year-old company highlighted updates to its platform said to allow subject matter experts to access “a marketplace of pre-packaged applications for everything from optimization and kernel alignment to variational quantum eigensolvers and neural networks.”
This comes after recent completion of a $24-million funding round led by Hitachi Ventures, with investments from IBM, Raytheon, and others.
“We’ve added abstraction layers to make it easier for subject matter experts – and everybody else – to take advantage of these tools. Below them, developers can open up pre-packaged applications and change the parameters,” Strangeworks founder and CEO William ‘whurley’ Hurley told us at Quantum Tech 2023.
We asked how does Hurly gauge the progress or lack of progress with quantum computing today.
“The fact is, is these machines are useful today,” he responded. “They work for material design, a lot of chemistry problems. Finance is starting to really get its legs. But they don’t match anywhere near the hype the industry has put out about them.”
And, he’s not averse to the term ‘quantum winter.’ Hurley said a challenging economic climate can strengthen an industry now desperately in search of skilled talent.
“We are entering – whether anybody wants to say or not – a quantum winter, and this is a good thing. Everybody associates a quantum winter, or a downturn in funding, or whatever, as this big, dramatic event,” he said. “In reality, it’s kind of like pruning your rosebush, or taking care of your garden.” – Jack Vaughan