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One Boston startup says it’s made a quantum leap in computing

QuEra’s new technology comes from researchers at Harvard and MIT.

A quantum computer developed by QuEra Computing of Boston.
A quantum computer developed by QuEra Computing of Boston.QuEra Computing Inc

Boston startup QuEra Computing says it’s developed the world’s most powerful quantum computers. The company has raised $17 million to commercialize the new systems, which were developed by researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It plans to make them available to scientists and businesses looking to tackle problems far too complex for even the most muscular standard supercomputers.

“Quantum computing is a new way of thinking about computing,” said QuEra’s chief executive, Alexander Keesling, a Harvard-trained physicist who co-developed the technology. “It’s not just like the next generation of existing systems.”

Unlike today’s “classical” computers that rely on bits of digital data stored in electronic circuits, QuEra’s quantum computer uses lasers to control the state of individual atoms, called “qubits.” In a classical computer, a data bit can only be in one of two states, zero or one. In a quantum computer, a qubit can simultaneously be equal to zero and one. As a result, a qubit-based computer can process massively greater amounts of data than any classical computer.

But controlling individual qubits is difficult. Machines built at the world’s top laboratory have managed only a few qubits at a time, resulting in quantum machines that are no better at solving problems than their classical counterparts.

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Now that’s beginning to change. Earlier this week, IBM Corp. said that it’s built a quantum computer with a capacity of 127 qubits. That would make it much more capable than the 60-qubit machine announced by Chinese scientists in September. But QuEra says it’s beaten them both, and by a large margin. In July, the company’s scientists published a paper in the journal Nature describing a quantum computer with a capacity of 256 qubits.

“This is huge,” said Chirag Dekate, an analyst at the tech research firm Gartner. “This is easily one of the largest quantum computers that I know of.”

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Now, QuEra is bringing the technology to market, with financial backing from Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, as well as from Day One Ventures and Frontiers Capital. QuEra won’t sell its hardware, but will instead sell access to its quantum machines as a cloud-based service.

Keesling said that a 256-qubit machine can be used to simulate systems that are governed by the rules of quantum mechanics, like the subatomic particles inside protein molecules. Such molecules form the building blocks of drugs and vaccines, and so quantum computers could become vital tools for the pharmaceutical industry.

But this is just the low-hanging fruit. If a quantum machine can be built with a much larger number of qubits — say, 1,000 or more — quantum computers will become a practical tool for tacking a range of immensely complex problems. Such computers could generate much more accurate weather forecasts, for instance. Investment firms such as JP Morgan Chase have already begun to study how quantum machines could enable more accurate modeling of financial markets, to produce better returns on investments.

On the scary side, a big-enough quantum computer will probably be capable of cracking today’s digital encryption systems. That might be a crippling blow to privacy. At the very least, it would force the development of new “quantum-proof” security systems.

In any case, we’re likely to find out. Keesling predicted that QuEra will build a 1,000-qubit machine within two years. Meanwhile, both IBM and search giant Google have said they’re planning to build million-qubit machines sometime in the next decade.

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.