Oct 1, 2020 - Technology

A new claimant for "most powerful quantum computer"

Illustration of a computer floating above a space/time grid

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The startup IonQ today announced what it's calling "the world's most powerful quantum computer."

Why it matters: Quantum is the next frontier in computing, theoretically capable of solving problems beyond the ability of classical computers. IonQ's next-generation computer looks set to push the boundaries of quantum, but it will still take years before the technology becomes truly reliable.

How it works: IonQ reports its new quantum computer system has 32 "perfect" qubits — the basic unit of information in a quantum computer — that the company says gives it an expected quantum volume of more than 4,000,000.

  • Quantum volume is a metric that attempts to calculate the computing effectiveness of a quantum computer. These types of metrics are necessary because quantum computers are built in different ways and to different specifications.
  • "The way we achieved it is by having good fidelity in our qubits," says Peter Chapman, IonQ's president and CEO. "You can have a million qubits, but if your fidelity isn't good enough, it doesn't really matter."

Background: IonQ was co-founded by Chris Monroe, a University of Maryland professor and major figure in the development of quantum computers. In the mid-1990s, he began working on entangling atoms to make more precise atomic clocks, the most accurate timekeeping devices known.

  • IonQ's approach to quantum computing builds out of that research. It uses trapped ions in a way that Chapman says reduces the errors that qubits are prone to.

The catch: IonQ hasn't yet released detailed specifications of its new system, and its research needs to be verified.

  • That fact "puts me in a wait-and-see mode," Greg Kuperberg, a quantum computing expert at University of California-Davis, told Fortune.

Context: IonQ's announcement comes in the same week that its competitor Honeywell, which also use a version of trapped ions, reported achieving a quantum volume of 128, and the Canadian startup D-Wave announced a 5,000-qubit system built yet another way would that be available for customers, including via the cloud.

  • "We can solve interesting, useful problems" for customers, says Alan Baratz, D-Wave's president and CEO.

Be smart: Comparing different kinds of quantum computing systems is difficult because they function in fundamentally different ways.

  • But given that quantum computers tap the confounding principles of quantum physics, where qubits can be superposed in two different states at the same time, perhaps that makes a kind of sense.
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