Back in the 1950s, computers took up entire rooms. They gave birth to PCs, the internet and smartphones. Today, cutting-edge bulky machines are quantum computers — and there’s no telling what unimaginable innovations they will unleash, says Alex Keesling, CEO of QuEra Computing, a Boston-based startup intent on commercializing the technology.
Computing the impossible
QuEra is a quantum computing spinoff from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that emerged from stealth mode last November. It announced $17 million in funding from investors including Rakuten, Day One Ventures and Frontiers Capital. It’s one of the latest players in the quantum computing race, which is seeing both startups and global brands like IBM and Google competing to develop more and more powerful machines.
Quantum computing is a slippery concept that involves some far-out physics. Quantum computers use super-low temperatures to exploit the quantum mechanics phenomena of superposition, entanglement and tunneling. This enables their basic unit of information, the quantum bit (or qubit), to take on a zero or one state simultaneously, as opposed to the on-or-off nature of bits in conventional computers. Such systems can explore all possible solutions to a problem simultaneously. With thousands of qubits, they could deliver groundbreaking advances in applications ranging from cryptography and AI to life-saving drug discovery and neuroscience.
“Rakuten has been with us since the beginning. I think this was something that allowed us to build the machine that we have right now.”Alex Keesling, CEO, QuEra Computing
“The important thing about a platform like ours is the versatility to really take on things that seem completely unrelated and model them using our hardware,” Keesling said in a recent chat with Rakuten Today. “This can give us insights into what is really happening, for example, with a material or how nuclear matter comes together.”
From zero to 256
The work leading to QuEra’s devices began with an empty lab at Harvard University in 2015, and quickly progressed to a machine capable of handling hundreds of qubits by 2021. This university-developed machine, used to display a Mario Bros. GIF as a stunt to show its capabilities, is the precursor to the next generation of instruments being developed outside of the University’s walls.
QuEra was founded in 2019 by some of the scientists behind this new technology, including Mikhail Lukin, a professor of physics at Harvard who taught Takuya Kitagawa, now Chief Data Officer at Rakuten. After two years of work, in 2021 the company unveiled a 256-qubit machine that is already ahead of its rivals.
In contrast to rivals using supercomputing qubits or trapped ions, QuEra’s qubits are based on neutral-charge Rydberg atoms, oversized atoms with far-flung electrons that can interact with other atoms nearby. QuEra can arrange these atoms in 1D and 2D arrays, using individual atoms as core units of processing, and stimulating interactions with laser pulses. The company says its approach allows for accuracy and high scalability. It aims to develop a 1,000-qubit machine in the future, as well as systems with hundreds of thousands of qubits.
“It was very meaningful to have this close connection with industry partners who were willing to recognize the value that there is in the future of quantum computing.”Alex Keesling
“At its core, our technology already has more qubits than other platforms,” said Keesling. “But the most important thing is not just the current number, but projections and how you can continue to scale the technology. We are working with patented technology of neutral atom qubits which allows us to build larger and larger systems.”
Aside from the hardware, QuEra is working on new algorithms to take advantage of the power of quantum. They could be used for applications that are closer to consumer and corporate needs, such as finding the optimal designs for networks and the optimal level of risk, for any given situation, in investment portfolios. Those applications dovetail with many businesses, including e-commerce deliveries and the deployment of mobile network antennas. Keesling, however, noted that hardware and software development really go hand in hand, so one guides the other.
“We spend a lot of time and resources asking not only what is the most exciting technology, but how can we really enable some practical quantum advantage today by being smart about how we co-develop the hardware and algorithms — how can we gain insights from testing algorithms for different applications to prioritize the next generation of hardware upgrades,” said Keesling. “We’re already gearing up to make two new machines.”
“Rakuten has been with us since the beginning. I think this was something that allowed us to build the machine that we have right now,” shared Keesling. “It was very meaningful to have this close connection with industry partners who were willing to recognize the value that there is in the future of quantum computing.”
QuEra moves toward the commercial release of its 256-qubit machine on the cloud later this year. While it may be a little early to pinpoint which industries will be most impacted by quantum computers in the long run, it’s a safe bet this disruptive tech is headed in the right direction.