One of the biggest names in quantum computing could have opened up a multi-billion dollar market with a new breakthrough.

Quantinuum, the quantum computing company that spun out of Honeywell, said this week that it has made a breakthrough in technology that should help accelerate the commercial adoption of quantum computers.

It’s about debugging in real time.

One of the biggest problems with using quantum computers for any practical purpose is that circuits in a quantum computer are highly susceptible to all kinds of electromagnetic interference, causing errors in their calculations. These computational errors must be corrected, either by using software, often after a computation has been performed, or by using other physical parts of quantum circuits to check and correct errors in real time. So far, while scientists have developed theoretical methods for doing this kind of error correction in real time, few methods have been demonstrated in practice on a real quantum computer.

The game-changing potential of quantum computers theoretically stems from their ability to harness the peculiar properties of quantum mechanics. These machines might also speed up the time it takes to perform some of the calculations that can be done today on supercomputers, but take hours or days. In order to achieve these results, though, smoothing out calculation errors is extremely important. In 2019, Google demonstrated that a quantum computer could perform an esoteric calculation in 200 seconds, which it estimated would have taken more than 10,000 years for conventional supercomputing. Scientists believe that in the future, quantum computers will help make fertilizer production more efficient and sustainable as well as create new types of space-age materials.

That’s why this could be such a big problem that Quantinuum just said it showed two ways to perform real-time error correction for computations run by a quantum computer.

Tony Oatley, Quantinium’s chief operating officer, says the bug-correction offering is important evidence that the company is on track to be able to deliver a “quantitative advantage” for some real-world commercial applications within the next 18 to 24 months. This means that companies will be able to perform some of the computations – perhaps for financial risk or logistical guidance – faster, and possibly with better results, using quantum computers for at least part of the computation than they can with standard computers. “This lends tremendous credibility to our roadmap,” Otley said.

There is a lot of money in the Quantinuum roadmap. Back in February, Honeywell, the company’s largest shareholder, forecast revenue in Quantinuum’s future of $2 billion by 2026. That future could only have come close.

Today, Otley says, there is a huge disparity in the amount of money different companies, even direct competitors in the same industry, invest in quantum computing expertise and pilot projects. The reason, he says, is that there are widely differing beliefs about how fast quantum computers can be able to run major business processes faster or better than current methods on standard computers. Some people think that will happen in the next couple of years. Others believe that these fledgling machines will only begin to realize their commercial potential a decade from now. Otley says he hopes this week’s debugging hack will help direct more potential Quantinuum customers into the two-year camp.

$2 billion market opportunity

Honeywell’s projection of at least $2 billion in revenue from quantum computing by 2026 was a revision — a year earlier than it had previously forecast. Honeywell’s error correction hack should give more confidence in this drop.

Quantinuum is one of the most prominent players in the emerging quantum computer industry, with Honeywell making a bold and yet successful bet on a particular method for creating a quantum computer. This method is based on the use of powerful electromagnets to trap and manipulate the ions. Other companies, such as IBM, Google, and Rigetti Computing, have created quantum computers using superconducting materials. Microsoft is trying to create a different kind of this quantum computer based on superconductivity but with a slightly different technology that is less prone to errors. Still others are making quantum computers using lasers and photons. And some companies, such as Intel, are working on quantum computers where circuits are built using traditional semiconductors.

The ability to perform real-time error correction could be a huge advantage for Quantinuum and quantum computers that rely on trapped ions as they compete for a commercial advantage over competing quantum computer companies. But Uttley points out that in addition to selling access to its quantum computers through the cloud, Quantinuum is also helping customers run algorithms on IBM’s superconducting quantum computers. (IBM is also an investor in Quantinuum.)

Different types of algorithms and computations may be better suited for one type of quantum computer at the expense of another. Trapped ions tend to remain in a quantum state for relatively long periods of time – the record being an hour. On the other hand, superconducting circuits tend to remain in a quantum state for milliseconds or less. But it also means that it takes much longer for the trapped quantum computer to run a computation than it does for a superconducting computer, says Utley. He envisions a future of “hybrid computing” where different parts of the algorithm run on different machines in the cloud – partly on a conventional computer, partly on an ion-trapped quantum computer, and partly on a superconducting quantum computer.

In a standard computer, information is represented in binary form, either 0 or 1, called bits. Quantum computers use the principles of quantum mechanics to form their circuits, and each unit of these circuits is called a qubit. Qubits can represent both 0 and 1 simultaneously. This means that each additional qubit involved in performing the calculations doubles the power of the quantum computer. Doubling the power for each additional qubit is one reason quantum computers are, in theory, much more powerful than even today’s largest supercomputers. But this is true only if the debugging problem can be successfully addressed and if scientists can figure out how to successfully link enough qubits together to surpass the power of current standard high-performance computing clusters.

Quantum has shown two different error-correcting methods – one called the five-qubit code and the other called the Stan code. Both methods use several physical qubits to represent one logical part of a circuit, with some of those qubits actually doing the arithmetic while others are checking and debugging the arithmetic. As the name implies, a five-qubit code uses five qubits, while a stian code uses seven qubits. Otley says Quantinum has discovered that Steen code works “much better” than five-qubit code.

This could mean that it will become the dominant form of error correction, at least for trapped quantum computers, from now on.

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