Intel announced last week that it has built a 49-qubit processor, indicating it is on par with competitors IBM and Google in the race for ‘quantum supremacy’.

The announcement of the chip, code-named “Tangle Lake,” came during a pre-show keynote address by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The new system is in reference to an Alaskan lake chain and the tangled state of the electrons themselves.

“This 49-qubit chip pushes beyond our ability to simulate and is a step toward quantum supremacy, a point at which quantum computers far and away surpass the world’s best supercomputers,” claimed Krzanich. He then went on to say that he expects quantum computing will have a profound impact in areas like material science and pharmaceuticals.

Intel’s 49-qubit quantum computing test chip, code-named “Tangle Lake”

Commercialising Quantum Computing

The launch of the 49 qubit chip came last week came only a few months after Intel unveiled its 17-qubit chip. This was the first public announcement made by the silicon chipmaker regarding quantum hardware. The processor design of the 17-qubit chip was developed in conjunction with its Dutch partners, QuTech and Delft University of Technology.

But despite this rapid progress, Intel acknowledged the long road ahead before we can talk realistically about scalable, commercial quantum computers. According to Intel, “the gap between where we are today and where need to be is enormous.” At this stage, “in the quest to deliver a commercially viable quantum computing system, it’s anyone’s game,” said Mike Mayberry, corporate vice president and managing director of Intel Labs.

“We expect it will be five to seven years before the industry gets to tackling engineering-scale problems. It will likely require 1 million or more qubits to achieve commercial relevance.”

Technological Hurdles

“Qubits are tremendously fragile. Any noise or unintended observation of them can cause data loss. This fragility requires them to operate at about 20 millikelvin – 250 times colder than outer space.”

This is but one factor preventing the manufacture of large scale quantum computers. And while early classical computers were also room-sized and required commensurate cooling solutions, it is unclear how you could build hand-sized or even desktop quantum machines that incorporate the cooling required for the technology to function.

Intel is also investigating another type of qubit, spin qubits, to see if they can be implemented in silicon. Spin qubits are much smaller and can potentially be implemented in CMOS and Intel has invented a spin qubit fabrication flow on “300mm process technology.” This is oddly phrased, but seems to indicate Intel is building these chips on its 300mm wafers as opposed to some new process node.

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Source references: Top500, Extreme Tech Intel