While 2021 was just another year in the slow-motion evolution of quantum computing, a cadre of vendors rolled out offerings that promise to boost the technology into production IT environments sooner rather than later.
There's that word again: promise. Over the past five years, technology dinosaurs and startups alike have confidently talked about the dramatic changes their quantum products would bring, but corporate IT pros are still waiting. What has renewed hope recently is the introduction of foundational products that could make quantum computing a more practical and immediate contributor to solve pressing IT issues in the next year or two.
Last month, IBM debuted its most powerful quantum system, code-named Eagle, with a 127-qubit processor -- the first to break the 100-qubit barrier. The system also contains new chip packaging and refrigeration technologies, including a new cryogenic platform, developed in concert with Bluefors' cryogenics, that keeps temperatures low, resulting in better system stability.
These technologies will serve as foundational blocks for at least the next two IBM quantum systems: the 433-qubit Osprey due next year and the 1,121-qubit Condor expected in 2023. IBM expects to have these systems with the new technologies up and running at IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., in 2023.
"The technological breakthrough is we now know how to add more qubits on the way to having sufficiently powerful machines fast enough to solve many more complex problems," said Bob Sutor, IBM's chief quantum exponent. "It's an important milestone pertaining to scalability."
Honeywell's quantum milestones
In addition to delivering a version of its H1 quantum system this year that achieved a quantum volume of 1,024 -- a metric measuring a quantum system's overall capability and performance -- Honeywell this week achieved another first, delivering a cryptographic key generation platform powered solely by a quantum computer. Called Quantum Origin, the offering will be delivered as a service and works with the infrastructure of existing classical systems.
"The technology itself is interesting," said Dan Newman, principal analyst and founding partner at Futurum Research. "But the broader implications of an as-a-service quantum software is the most noteworthy item. It's still early days, but an offering that can be run entirely on quantum is more than notable; it's a breakthrough."
Quantum Origin works with multiple existing algorithms, including RSA and AES, along with cryptography algorithms now being standardized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).These latest products and services qualify both Honeywell and IBM as full-stack quantum suppliers, helping validate the technology in the eyes of hesitant corporate IT pros.
Honeywell and IBM have server hardware based on their own processor technology, a software portfolio including compilers and software development kits, software and hardware for integrating quantum and classical environments, and now have, or are working on, exploitive applications. Being a full-stack supplier also enriches a company's competitive position against many companies specializing in just server hardware or quantum components serving niche markets
"The full-stack quantum providers with the software and cloud infrastructure will be survivors," said Doug Finke, publisher and managing editor of The Quantum Computing Report. "But it doesn't mean those companies that are specialists will get totally lost in the mix, either. For them, the strategy is to partner up with companies offering full stacks."
Quantum computing ecosystem growth
One consultant with an equally optimistic view believes the increased interest in quantum computing over the next few years leaves the door wide open for both full-stackers and niche players alike.
"There will be plenty of room for specialty companies to make things like lasers and vacuums and other necessary componentry that makes things work," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects. "And there will be new materials introduced along the way that will make quantum computing more of a practical reality for IT organizations."
One example of a new quantum computation material came from IonQ Inc. this week. The company unveiled plans to use barium ions as qubits in its upcoming quantum systems that will lead the way to more advanced quantum architectures. Future systems will not only be faster because of this advance, but also more easily interconnected to extend uptime for corporate users and set the stage for developing a broader array of applications, IonQ said.
Perhaps more importantly, barium ions will result in lower error rates, which ensure higher reliability and better state detection, according to IonQ.
"You're not going to get to 2,000 or 100,000 qubit systems until we figure out how to make significant progress with [error] correction. It's a big wall to climb over," said Paul Smith-Goodson, vice president and principal analyst of quantum and AI with Moor Insights & Strategy. "But I think you will see some breakthroughs in 2022 with IBM, Honeywell and others who working hard on this."
Paul Smith-GoodsonVice president, principal analyst of quantum and AI, Moor Insights & Strategy
What could ensure the economic viability of quantum computing development, especially for cash-hungry startups, is the sustained stream of venture capital flowing into the market. In a report released late last month, Constellation Research found that 241 companies in the quantum computing market spread across seven market segments drew some $8.5 billion and currently have a total market cap worth $174.2 billion.
Full-stack vendors are driving $14.6 billion of the total market cap, with quantum software makers accounting for $6.1 billion and communications vendors having a collective $5.8 billion market cap. Constellation Research expects a dozen full-stack companies to emerge over the next five years as "winners," along with five to seven specialists in each of the seven major categories.
Not surprisingly, the security segment has attracted the most funding so far: over $5 billion, according to the report. Given the increased focus on preventing cyber attacks, cloud-based security products and services could be the "killer apps" that lends credibility to quantum computing.
"Cybersecurity is a good starting point in talking about killer apps," Smith-Goodson said. "But there are other applications that could break through around the same time frame, like simulation and financial applications. But we could be a couple of years away from that."
What could spur delivery of usable quantum-based security offerings soon is the US Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security's decision late last month to ban U.S. companies from doing business with eight high-tech companies in China that "dabble with quantum computing." The decision was based on those Chinese companies posing a "threat to national security," the agency said in a prepared statement.