Alibaba shuts down quantum lab, donates it to university

Three guesses where DAMO plans to focus research from now on. Yep, you guessed it...AI

China's cloud and e-commerce giant Alibaba has shut down its quantum computing laboratory and laid off a number of researchers in what appears to be a bid to cut costs.

The move comes just weeks after the company cancelled the planned IPO of its cloud division.

Alibaba, one of the largest companies in China, has effectively divested itself of the quantum computing laboratory. According to reports, its DAMO Academy research division has donated the lab and all of its equipment to Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.

It was reported by Chinese media that more than 30 researchers are being laid off, and the official website of the Damo Academy has also removed references to the quantum laboratory itself. It is understood the quantum lab is only a small part of Alibaba's overall research team.

According to Reuters, Zhejiang University said it would aim to recruit the affected employees to work on its own quantum research program, and the DAMO Academy is to refocus its technology research efforts into artificial intelligence instead.

We asked Alibaba for confirmation, and whether ending its quantum research was done for reasons of costs or for some other motivation, but the company was not immediately available to respond. Some onlookers are questioning whether this was a financial-based decision, or if it is a sign the business does not see quantum research as viable.

Earlier this month, Alibaba said it was cancelling the planned spin-off of its cloud division, blaming the impact of Washington's updated export restrictions. Alibaba said at the time these were making it harder to acquire new systems, which might adversely affect its ability to offer products and services and to "perform under existing contracts."

The decision, along with the news that founder Jack Ma's family trust was planning to downsize its stake in the business by selling off 10 million shares, saw Alibaba's share price fall by more than 10 percent. This was despite the company reporting revenue up 9 percent to $30.8 billion in its calendar Q3 earnings.

Alibaba announced the IPO of its cloud division earlier this year, as part of an ambitious reorganization that would split the company six ways, in order to allow the individual businesses to become more agile and respond faster to market changes, it said at the time.

Quantum leaps elsewhere...

Meanwhile, another university is set to get quantum capabilities. IBM said it has deployed Japan's first IBM Quantum System One at the University of Tokyo, containing one of Big Blue's 127-qubit Eagle quantum processors.

University Executive Vice President Hiroaki Aihara hailed the move as the first time outside North America that a quantum computer with a 127-qubit processor is available, for exclusive use by the university's Quantum Innovation Initiative (QII) Consortium.

"The limit of what can be simulated by a supercomputer is about 50 qubits, and it is possible to perform large-scale and complex calculations that would be impossible without a quantum computer," he claimed, adding the aim is to conduct research across a range fields using the system.

The Eagle quantum processor was unveiled by IBM two years ago, and has since been surpassed by the 433-qubit Osprey processor last year. IBM previously said it hopes to have a 4,158 qubit system by 2025.

Europe is also looking to gain a new quantum system. The European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking (EuroHPC JU) agency has put out a call for tender for a new system to be hosted and operated by the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) in Germany and integrated into the LRZ supercomputer SuperMUC-NG.

The system, to be called Euro-Q-Exa, will be based on superconducting qubits and offer 50 physical qubits in a first phase, to be expanded to at least 100 qubits in a second phase. It will be available to a wide range of European users to support industrial and scientific research.

According to EuroHPC, the total cost of the system will be €42.71 million ($46.7 million) and it will be co-funded by the EuroHPC JU, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts. ®

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