Intel ships mystery quantum hardware to national lab

Argonne boffinry nerve-center is building a qubit computer with x86 giant Inside


Intel sees quantum computing as the next step beyond today's CPUs and GPUs, and this week took a step ahead in delivering such a system.

The chipmaker is sending quantum computing equipment to the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) where it will slot into a real-world quantum system being built at ANL.

"The Intel piece will be the first major component installed in Argonne’s quantum foundry, which will serve as a factory for creating and testing new quantum materials and devices. It is expected to be completed this year," the national lab said.

And here's where things get interesting. It's not clear what the equipment is, exactly.

While we await deeper confirmation on what the quantum device is (and isn't) it's worth remembering Intel has manufactured samples of its 22nm quantum chips called Horse Ridge I and II. The chip uses mixed-signal integrated circuits to control qubits and generate readouts, with the ability to scale to more qubits.

Intel and ANL couldn't provide details about the specific quantum equipment at the time of publishing.

Dozens of companies are building quantum systems that range from realistic to straight out of science fiction. D-Wave's quantum annealing system is already being used for specific applications, while systems from IBM and Google require cooling to a fraction of the temperature of deep-space. PsiQuantum's building a mega-quantum computer the size of a data center. Microsoft is chasing a quantum computer based on a particle that hasn't been proven yet to exist.

Intel believes its qubit approach is the best as the quantum hardware can be manufactured in its existing factories. Quantum competitors, such as Rigetti, are also touting quantum systems that don't require any special manufacturing equipment, as compared to quantum systems makers such as annealing-device maker D-Wave, for instance, which requires specialized fabrication and production plants to produce machines.

The ANL quantum system is part of private-public collaborative effort called Q-NEXT to boost quantum computing and communication in the US. Beyond testing applications, the system will also help test new quantum materials and devices.

Could Intel help the US national labs maintain an edge?

Compared to China, the US has been slow in making quantum computing a priority. Researchers have complained Uncle Sam hasn't done enough to facilitate collaboration and bridge the gap between educators, developers, and scientists involved in algorithms and developing hardware.

Also, activity around the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQI), which was signed into law in 2018 to supercharge quantum computing development and research, has stalled. But there's a lot of investment dollars flowing in from venture capital and the government to advance quantum computers and fundamental science in the US, Carl Dukatz, quantum program lead at Accenture, told The Register.

Rigetti last year went public through a $1.5bn SPAC megadeal, and quantum computing startups raked in another $1bn in venture funding, according to data from PitchBook.

D-Wave earlier this year announced it would go public through a $1.2bn merger with a SPAC.

Companies developing quantum systems are adding abstraction layers that make these systems accessible to larger audiences to explore and test, Dukatz said.

"I think of it similar to the way AI or machine learning or big data systems evolved. For a time you had Hadoop and you needed people who understood data science and could write MapReduce code. Then eventually a set of services on top of Hadoop made it more accessible to people who could write SQL, and that abstraction made it more viable for businesses," Dukatz said.

This abstraction should be arriving for quantum computing. That's handy because, for one thing, the type of interest shown by businesses to qubit computers also really depends on who is asking the questions: if it's the science and research department, those people want to get their hands on exactly how the equipment works. If it's the corporate side, they want to know how the computer can be used. Having abstractions available to run workloads on quantum computing systems is essential to the latter group, and the technology's wider success.

"If [queries are] coming from IT or the business itself, then it may be more outcome driven," Accenture's Dukatz said. "If it's coming from the chemistry side or the fundamental research side of a business, then they may be looking more in depth.

"If it is a R&D department talking to us, they want to know the physics behind how the device works in addition to which device to use. They want to understand the science behind it, whereas other companies may say that they're really only interested in the outcome." ®

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