Intel’s rich history in process technology engineering puts them in a unique position to advance quantum computing toward commercialisation.
In 1965, Intel co-founder, Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors that could be crammed onto a computing chip would double every 18 months. Since then, Intel have come to dominate the semiconductor industry with products that are smaller, cheaper, faster and more energy efficient than any other; Intel’s silicon chips have been the building blocks for a variety of computing devices and their subsequent development.
‘Moore’s Law’ has led to the exponential speed-up in computing power and is now embodied by the trillion dollar technology industry we see around us. However, chip experts now claim that the end of Moore’s Law is on the horizon. Classical computing transistor technologies have shrunk to 5nm – fast approaching the size of the atom. If Moore’s Law was to continue through to 2050, ‘engineers would have to build transistors from components that are smaller than a ‘single atom of hydrogen’. This will be increasingly expensive for technology companies as building fabrication plants for new chips costs billions. Consequently, other technological avenues are required for growth to continue. Intel now envision a future where classical computing is enhanced by a range of complementary technologies.
What is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computing represents a paradigm shift in computing. It takes advantage of the strange ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one states at any time. Due to the way the tiniest of particles behave, operations can be done much more quickly and use less energy than classical computers. In classical computing, a bit is a single piece of information that can exist in two states – 1 or 0. Quantum computing uses quantum bits, or ‘qubits’ instead. These are quantum systems with two states. However, unlike a usual bit, they can store much more information than just 1 or 0, because they can exist in any superposition of these values.
Researches predict that an advanced quantum computer with millions of coherent qubits could outstrip the capabilities of today’s most powerful supercomputers. This includes transforming artificial intelligence, cyber security, genomics, finance, engineering, and clean energy. Governments are now investing millions annually in research and leading technology companies all have active programs including IBM, Google, Atos, Alibaba, and Microsoft.
It is important to stress that the technology is nascent. Intel claim that we are at a stage of infancy: “There will be a lot of new progress and development in the next few years before full-scale quantum computing systems will be commercially available.”
One of the main technical challenges for researchers developing a quantum computer is that qubits are inherently fragile and difficult to scale: “Today every single qubit added doubles the complexity of the system,” argues Jim Clarke, Director of Quantum Hardware at Intel Labs. And this central difficulty means that the quest to deliver a commercially viable quantum computing system “is anyone’s game”.
Today the scientific and engineering questions are open and indeterminate. Generally speaking there are three broad road maps to quantum computing and currently there is not even a consensus on the best material to use. Some labs are working with atoms, others novel particles, others are looking in to light particles (photons), and some use superconductors and semiconductor devices.
Intel’s Quantum Computing Approach
Intel are confronting the challenges head on with a two pronged approach to quantum computing. On the one hand they are building the kind of superconducting qubits common among industry researches like Google and IBM. This is exemplified with the Tangle Lake 49 qubit quantum test chip. Intel are also venturing down a more novel route by making use of the silicon technology they know so well. This is an approach known as “spin qubits in silicon”, and despite being at an earlier phase of R&D could see rapid progress in a shorter period of time.
This week, Quantum Business spoke to two distinguished experts from Intel Labs to explore how the team are actively developing an advanced quantum computer for industry. We spoke with Jim Clarke, Director of Quantum Hardware at Intel Labs to understand Intel’s engineering and scientific approaches to the field. We also spoke to Jim Held, director of Emerging Technologies Research at Intel Labs to understand how quantum computing fits into Intel’s strategy and what the near and long terms applications are.
The Road To Commercialising Quantum Computing
Jim Clarke outlines some of the main technical challenges the industry faces. “Today every single qubit added doubles the complexity of the system. For a commercially viable, transformative quantum computer to hit the market, we would need about one million qubits that are fully error corrected. We anticipate we will only achieve that level of maturity in about a decade. This will require a lot more R&D.”
“We’re at mile one of a marathon when it comes to quantum computing.”
“Among the challenges that must be overcome are the achievement of high fidelity, multi-qubit operations, efficient interconnect or wiring between qubits, fast, low-power qubit control electronics and high-performance, energy-efficient error correction to reduce the impact of qubit fragility.”
Clarke explains that today researchers are finding it exceptionally difficult to move forward and scale current systems. He also reveals that since launching Intel’s quantum computing effort in 2015, the team have made rapid progress and achieved many milestones. Intel’s two main approaches and how they are tackling the challenges head on.
Superconducting Quantum Computing
One of the approaches Intel are leading is in superconducting quantum computing. This is an approach that is common among industry researchers and is the oldest approach in the field – the first qubit was developed in Oxford in 1998. Last month we explored the implications of Google’s 72 qubit ‘Bristlecone Quantum Processor’ with Senior Researcher, Vasil Denchev (see here).
Jim Clarke reveals that many companies (Intel included) now have chips of 50 Qubits or so. “The focus of the next 18 months will be improving the quality of the qubits in the chips in order to test larger algorithms across the entire chip,” Clarke explains.
“It has only been two years since we established our research collaboration with QuTech and since that time we introduced the 17-qubit chip in October and just two months later introduced the 49-qubit ‘Tangle Lake’ test chip. This advancement demonstrated how quickly Intel could achieve progress when applying their engineering expertise to a challenge like quantum physics. That kind of progress was only made possible by applying our strength in materials science and semiconductor manufacturing to our research in quantum computing.”
“Our 49-qubit test chip (Tangle Lake) demonstrates real progress and development upon our design for the 17-qubit superconducting test chip. These chips feature a new architecture that allows improved reliability, thermal performance and reduced radio frequency interference between qubits. Further, we adapted our 300 nm processor design to support the fabrication of quantum processors. The ‘flip chip’ fabrication process enables us to deliver a scalable interconnect scheme that integrates more signals into and out of the chip, as compared to wire bonded chips. It also enables smaller and denser connections to get signals on and off the chips.”
“Tangle Lake represents progress toward our goal of developing a complete quantum computing system – from architecture to algorithms to control electronics. Achieving a 49-qubit test chip is an important milestone because it will allow researchers to assess and improve error correction techniques and simulate computational problems,” Jim Clarke.
Spin Qubits in Silicon
Intel are also venturing down a more nascent but potentially revolutionary area of research. Clarke claims that for his team this is the most exciting area of research. “Spin qubits highly resemble the semiconductor electronics and transistors as we know them today. They deliver their quantum power by leveraging the spin of a single electron on a silicon device and controlling the movement with tiny, microwave pulses. The basic idea is to effectively create qubits in this way.
‘The advantages are that the silicon-based systems could allow qubits to be packed more densely together than other approaches – the closer qubits are to one another, the easier it is to get them to influence neighbours, which boosts machines’ computational power. Ultimately, the hope is that this will make it easier to scale quantum computers to the millions of qubits needed to make a really useful commercial system.”
Progress in Spin Qubits
“In February, QuTech and Intel unveiled success creating a fully programmable two-qubit spin-based quantum computer and the development of a spin qubit fabrication flow on Intel’s 300 mm process technology,” Clarke revealed. “One of the reasons that we are investing in silicon spin-qubit research is that these designs can function at higher temperatures than superconducting qubits can. Together with QuTech, we are exploring higher temperature operation of spin qubits with interesting results up to 1K as opposed to 20 millikelvin, up to 50x warmer than superconducting chips.”
“Essentially, we are now able to manufacture and test spin-qubit test chips in the same facility as we create Intel’s advanced transistor technologies. Within a couple of months, we expect to be producing many wafers per week, each with thousands of small qubit arrays. We announced this milestone with our partners from QuTech during the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in February of 2018.” Over the next 6 months, Jim Clarke expect that Silicon Spin qubit will be yielding across a 300mm wafer and under test with our academic partners.
QuTech Research explain the benefits of using silicon to build a quantum computer
Partnership with QuTech
Intel’s partnership with academic research institution, QuTech, in the Netherlands, is emblematic of the importance of industrial – academic collaborations in this space. Jim Held, Director of Emerging Technologies Research reveals that together Intel and QuTech bring expertise in the specialized electronics, architecture, algorithms and advanced physics that are key to success.”
“Intel’s work with academic partner QuTech has meant that the time from design and fabrication to test has been greatly accelerated.”
“The team has achieved many milestones since starting with QuTech in 2015: demonstrating a full compute stack of algorithm, compiler, control electronics and qubits, developing key circuit blocks for an integrated cryogenic-CMOS control system, developing a spin qubit fabrication flow on Intel’s 300mm process technology and developing 17 and 49 superconducting qubit chips with our unique packaging solution,” Held claims.
“We believe that partnerships like the one we have with QuTech will help realize the promise of such a technically complex issue. Also, much of the research happening in quantum systems today is being shared in academic conferences and papers, and similar forums, which helps further the collective field of research.”
What Are The Applications For Industry?
One of the main applications for quantum computing is in the simulation of molecules. Chemistry, medicine, energy, materials and manufacturing are the verticals most likely to see the most rapid change in the shortest period of time. An advanced quantum computer could enable you to design new chemicals and drugs for fighting diseases like cancer and even design new materials for more energy efficient buildings.
‘The ability to represent and manipulate so many states makes quantum computing well suited for many problems. However, for a commercially viable, transformative quantum computer to hit the market, we would need about one million qubits that are fully error corrected. we anticipate we will only achieve that level of maturity in about a decade.”
Held reveals that the first applications—those that we’ll see in the next ten years—are comparatively small scale, such as targeted chemistry research like simulating molecules.
“The earliest applications will be in areas like materials science like modelling complex structures in nature like proteins, where modelling even small molecules requires tremendous computation.”
Further out in time, “larger machines will enable many more important uses applications such as drug design, logistics optimization – including finding the most efficient of any number of possible travel routes and machine learning – addressing the computing demands of training better neural networks will help improve many AI applications.”
This insight from Intel is a fascinating window into the journey toward commercialised quantum computing. This is yet another welcome voice to the growing network of experts connecting with Quantum Business every week.
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Written by Hal Briggs from Quantum Business