Early in its history, computing was dominated by time-sharing systems. These systems were powerful machines (for their time, at least) that multiple users connected to in order to perform computing tasks. To an extent, quantum computing has repeated this history, with companies like Honeywell, IBM, and Rigetti making their machines available to users via cloud services. Companies pay based on the amount of time they spend executing algorithms on the hardware.
For the most part, time-sharing works out well, saving companies the expenses involved in maintaining the machine and its associated hardware, which often includes a system that chills the processor down to nearly absolute zero. But there are several customers—companies developing support hardware, academic researchers, etc.—for whom access to the actual hardware could be essential.
The fact that companies aren’t shipping out processors suggests that the market isn’t big enough to make production worthwhile. But a startup from the Netherlands is betting that the size of the market is about to change. On Monday, a company called QuantWare announced that it will start selling quantum processors based on transmons, superconducting loops of wire that form the basis of similar machines used by Google, IBM, and Rigetti.
What’s on offer?
Transmon-based qubits are popular because they’re compatible with the standard fabrication techniques used for more traditional processors; they can also be controlled using microwave-frequency signals. Their big downside is that they operate only at temperatures that require liquid helium and specialized refrigeration hardware. These requirements complicate the hardware needed to exchange signals between the very cold processor and the room-temperature hardware that controls it.
Startup companies like D-Wave and Rigetti have set up their own fabrication facilities, but Matthijs Rijlaarsdam, one of QuantWare’s founders, told Ars that his company is taking advantage of an association with TU Delft, the host of the Kavli Nanolab. This partnership lets QuantWare do the fabrication without investing in its own facility. Rijlaarsdam said the situation shouldn’t be a limiting factor, since he expects that the total market likely won’t exceed tens of thousands of processors over the entirety of the next decade. Production volumes don’t have to scale dramatically.
The initial processor the company will be shipping contains only five transmon qubits. Although this is well below anything on offer via one of the cloud services, Rijlaarsdam told Ars that the fidelities of each qubit will be 99.9 percent, which should keep the error rate manageable. He argued that, for now, a low qubit count should be sufficient based on the types of customers QuantWare expects to attract.
These customers include universities interested in studying new ways of using the processor and companies that might be interested in developing support hardware needed to turn a chip full of transmons into a functional system. Intel, for example, has been developing transmon hardware control chips that can tolerate the low temperatures required (although the semiconductor giant can also easily make its own transmons as needed).
That last aspect—developing a chip around which others could build a platform—features heavily in the press release that QuantWare shared with Ars. The announcement makes frequent mention of the Intel 4004, an early general-purpose microprocessor that found a home in a variety of computers.
Scaling and specialization
Rijlaarsdam told Ars that he expects the company to increase its qubit count by two- to four-fold each year for the next few years. That’s good progress, but it will still leave the company well behind the roadmap of competitors like IBM for the foreseeable future.
Rijlaarsdam also suggested that quantum computing will reach what he called “an inflection point” before 2025. Once this point is reached, quantum computers will regularly provide answers to problems that can’t be practically calculated using classical hardware. Once that point is reached, “the market will be a multibillion-dollar market,” Rijlaarsdam told Ars. “It will also grow rapidly, as the availability of large quantum computers will accelerate application development.”
But if that point is reached before 2025, it will arrive at a time when QuantWare’s qubit count is suited for the current market, which he accurately described as “an R&D market.” QuantWare’s solution to the awkward timing will be to develop quantum processors specialized for specific algorithms, which can presumably be done using fewer qubits. But those won’t be aren’t available for the company’s launch.
Obviously, it’s debatable whether there’s a large market of companies anxiously awaiting the opportunity to install liquid helium dilution refrigerators in their office/lab/garage. But the reality is that there is almost certainly some market for an off-the-shelf quantum processor—at least partly composed of other quantum computing startups.
That’s not quite equivalent to the situation that greeted the Intel 4004. But it may be significant in that we seem to be getting close to the point where some of Ars’ quantum-computing coverage will need to move out of the science section and over to IT, marking a clear shift in how the field is developing.
Listing image by QuantWare