Remember when Greater Boston was a global leader in computer manufacturing?
Alex Keesling thinks the region is about to get a second chance, thanks to the rise of quantum computing. And Keesling is betting that his Boston company QuEra Computing can lead the way, as it begins to offer a leasing program to give businesses hands-on access to its machines.
“We’re trying to make that happen — to make the Massachusetts area the center for quantum computing,” Keesling said.
Instead of the data bits inside a “classical” computer, quantum computers rely on “qubits,” or quantum bits, which are governed by the arcane rules of quantum physics. While a traditional bit can only represent zero or one, a qubit can represent both values at once. This means that qubit-based computers can process immensely more variables than traditional machines. Scientists believe that when the technology is perfected, quantum computers will be capable of extraordinary feats, like delivering vastly more accurate weather forecasts or cracking all known digital encryption systems.
Some quantum computers rely on chips that must be cooled to extremely low temperatures to stabilize the qubits. That means the machines require sophisticated refrigeration units or tanks of liquid nitrogen. In QuEra’s “Aquila” computer, the qubits are atoms of rubidium, floating inside a small vacuum chamber at room temperature. There’s no need to keep the chamber supercold. Instead, streams of infrared laser light strike the rubidium atoms and “freeze” them in place.
Quantum computers by QuEra and other makers like IBM and D-Wave have yet to reach their potential. But scientists, government researchers, and corporations are experimenting with the machines, to learn how best to use them. Usually, this means accessing a quantum machine via a cloud-based service like Amazon Braket.
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, funded by the US Department of Energy, signed a deal in March to evaluate QuEra’s computer. The center is testing Aquila to determine if it can help researchers solve thorny problems in quantum dynamics and high-energy physics.
Users pay about $250 per hour to access Aquila via the cloud. The computer is only available for 10 hours a week, though the company plans to expand the system’s availability. For now, QuEra’s computer spends most of its time being used by the company’s scientists or undergoing maintenance. And while traditional computers can run multiple tasks simultaneously, current quantum machines can only tackle one problem at a time. So cloud customers must wait their turns.
Heather West, an analyst at IDC Corp. who tracks the quantum computing market, said that a growing number of customers are chafing at the limitations of cloud-based quantum. Instead, with a leased machine, “that system is dedicated to you,” West said. “You can run your job, get the results back, make any adjustments you want to make, and re-run.”
QuEra last week launched a program to lease quantum computers to users who want a machine entirely to themselves. Leases will cost between $3 million and $5 million per year, depending on varying configurations of the machine. QuEra has also launched a premium service for its cloud-based users. They’ll be able to work directly with QuEra scientists who’ll provide training in quantum computing and help in writing software to run on the machine.
The present QuEra system can only work with a maximum of 256 qubits at a time. That makes it one of the world’s most advanced quantum machines, but it’s still far too small to challenge the dominance of traditional computers. For that you’d need machines with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of qubits, and scientists still haven’t figured out how to build quantum computers on that scale.
Still, Keesling believes that the QuEra technology could be scaled up to build a machine with up to 100,000 qubits. “With a system like this,” he said, “without having to re-engineer everything, you can keep pushing it.”
Of course, competitors will keep pushing as well. And some, like IBM and Google, have very deep pockets. By contrast, QuEra has raised just $17 million in venture funding, with Japanese tech conglomerate Rakuten as the lead investor.
But analyst West said that QuEra’s machines could be better than others at solving certain kinds of computing problems, ensuring the company a seat at the quantum table.
“There may not be a winner,” West said. “There might be a series of winners. QuEra potentially could become one of those companies.”