The impact of quantum computing could come sooner than you think

The impact of quantum computing could come sooner than you think

In 2013, Rigetti Computing began its efforts to make quantum computers. That effort could bear serious fruit starting in 2023, the company said Friday.

That’s because next year, the Berkeley, California-based company plans to deliver both its fourth-generation car, called the Ankaa, and an extended model called the Lyra. The company hopes those machines will bring a “quantum edge,” when radically different machines mature into devices that actually deliver results beyond the reach of conventional computers, said Rigetti founder and chief executive Chad Rigetti.

Quantum computers rely on the strange physics of ultrasmall elements such as atoms and photons to perform calculations that are impractical for the conventional processors that power smartphones, laptops and data centers. Advocates hope that quantum computers will lead to more powerful vehicle batteries, new medicines, more efficient package delivery, more efficient artificial intelligence and other breakthroughs.

So far, quantum computers are very expensive research projects. Still, Rigetti is among a large group vying to be the first to gain a quantum edge. This includes tech giants like IBM, Google, Baidu and Intel and specialists like Quantinuum, IonQ, PsiQuantum, Pasqal and Silicon Quantum Computing.

“This is the new space race,” Rigetti said in an exclusive interview ahead of the company’s first investor day.

For the event, the company is revealing more details about its full range of technology, including manufacturing, hardware, the applications its computers will run and cloud services to reach customers. “We’re building the full rocket,” Rigetti said.

Although Rigetti is not a household name, he carries weight in this world. In February, Rigetti raised $262 million and became one of a small number of publicly traded quantum computing companies. Although the company has been clear that its quantum computing business is a long-term plan, investors have become more skeptical. Its share price has fallen by about three-quarters since going public, hurt most recently when Rigetti announced the delay of a $4 million U.S. government contract that would have accounted for a large portion of the company’s annual revenue, from about 12 to 13 million dollars.

Multi-qubit quantum computers

Still, the company says it has the right approach for the long term. It starts in early 2023 with Ankaa, a processor that includes 84 qubits, the fundamental data processing element in a quantum computer. Four of those brought together are the Lyra foundation, a 336-qubit machine. The names are astronomical: Ankaa is a star and Lyra is a constellation.

Rigetti isn’t promising a quantum advantage from the 336-qubit machine, but it’s the company’s hope. “We think it’s absolutely within the realm of possibility,” Rigetti said.

Having more qubits is crucial for the more sophisticated algorithms needed for quantum edge. Rigetti hopes that customers in the financial, automotive and government sectors will be willing to pay for that quantum computing horsepower. Auto companies could research new battery technologies and optimize their complex manufacturing operations, and financial services companies are always looking for better ways to spot trends and make trading decisions, Rigetti said.

Rigetti plans to connect its Ankaa modules to larger machines: a 1,000-qubit computer in 2025 and a 4,000-qubit model in 2027.

But Rigetti is not the only company trying to build a rocket. IBM has a 127-qubit quantum computer today, with plans for a 433-qubit model in 2023 and more than 4,000 qubits in 2025. Although the number of qubits is only one measure of a quantum computer’s usefulness, it is an important factor .

“What Rigetti is doing with qubits pales in comparison to IBM,” said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Paul Smith-Goodson.

Rigetti’s quantum computing offerings

Along with these machines, Rigetti expects manufacturing developments, including a 5,000-square-foot expansion of the company’s Fremont, Calif., chip manufacturing facility underway, improvements to the error-correction technology needed to perform more than the most fleeting quantum computing calculations, and better software and services so that customers can actually use its machines.

Rigetti Computing plans to improve its broad suite of quantum computing technology.

Calculation rejections

To meet its goals, Rigetti also announced four new offerings at its investor event:

  • Graphics and AI chip giant Nvidia has started a partnership to merge quantum and conventional computing to improve climate modeling
  • Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service will provide access to the Rigetti machines
  • Bluefors will build new refrigerators to house the 1,000- and 4,000-qubit systems, a key technology partnership because its machines must be cooled to near absolute zero.
  • Keysight Technologies will offer its technology for reducing quantum computing error rates, a critical step in performing more complex calculations.

Qubits are easily perturbed, so handling errors is critical to the progress of quantum computing. So a better foundation is less prone to error. Quantum computer makers track this with a measurement called gate fidelity. Rigetti has 95 percent to 97 percent fidelity today, but prototypes for its fourth-generation Ankaa-based systems showed 99 percent, Rigetti said.

In analyst Smith-Goodson’s eyes, quantum computing will eventually become useful, but there are a lot of uncertainties about how and when we’ll get there.

“Everyone is working on a million qubit machine,” he said. “We’re not sure which technology is really going to make it.”

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