Is Quantum Computing Real or Just Vaporware?
The smallest unit of matter is an atom. It’s also where things start to get really weird. More than 99.99% of the atom’s mass is the nucleus. If the nucleus were the size of a car, all the nothingness around the atom would be about the size of the State of Utah, a place where you can’t get a proper pint. Inside all that empty nothingness, an electron would be found somewhere – about the size of a pea.
Incredibly, most of what surrounds us right now is absolutely nothing. Elon Musk says it’s almost certain that we’re living in a simulation, and this hardly conflicts with a belief in the Almighty. On the seventh day, God rested while he waited for the simulation to boot up, hoping he wouldn’t see a BSOD.
Perhaps the best proof that we’re in a simulation might be the weirdness of quantum mechanics, things like quantum entanglement. Scientists cannot explain why two particles separated by any distance can communicate without any problem. It’s this strange quantum world that investors continue to throw money at.
A Quantum Analogy
Ladies, quantum computing is like that really hot unemployed “musician” who sleeps over at your place on the occasional weekday, always talking about how he wants to settle down after his band finally hits it big. Every week, there’s some news about “progress” being made towards his lofty ambitions, as he asks you for yet another loan you know deep down inside he’ll never pay back. So, you throw the best years of your life at this money pit of promises, when you could have been out looking for a real opportunity, albeit a much less exciting one. That’s kind of how we feel about quantum computing.
Last time we looked at quantum computing was in a piece titled Has Google Finally Achieved Quantum Supremacy? Yes, the company that hires people to draw inclusive cartoons explaining federated learning claims to have performed something with a quantum computer that classical computers can’t. IBM called BS on the whole thing, and nothing seems to have come of Google’s quantum breakthrough. Just five days ago, Scientific American published a piece titled Google’s Quantum Computer Achieves Chemistry Milestone which goes on to say:
The simulation the researchers ran, known as the Hartree-Fock procedure, can also be performed on a classical computer, so it did not, by itself, demonstrate the superiority of a quantum computer. And it was run with help from a classical computer, which used machine learning to evaluate each calculation and then refine new rounds of quantum simulation.Credit: Scientific American
So, we’re back to classical computing again. Truth is, we don’t really need quantum computing for great things to happen. A top researcher at Microsoft – Matthias Troyer – took a problem that would take 30,000 years to solve, then developed an algorithm to solve it in 30 years. Then more recently, announced that he developed an algorithm that can solve the same problem in minutes. Thanks to the powers of machine learning, we don’t need to wait for quantum supremacy to accomplish some amazing things. That’s just one of the things we learned while speaking to one of the world’s leading experts in this space.
The Myth of Quantum Supremacy
Last spring, we traveled up to Vancouver Canada to meet with Landon Downs, Co-founder and President of one of the world’s leading quantum computing software companies – 1QBit. Among many of the great insights he shared, one stood out.
We’re all waiting for a company to announce quantum supremacy, that moment when a quantum computer performs a very specific use case, which we will then reverse engineer to find other use cases that are similar enough to be tackled in the same manner. What people don’t know is that it’s highly likely whoever develops that use case will not want anyone else to know about it. Therefore, we can conclude that it’s likely these big announcements of quantum supremacy have little substance.
Still, the old adage “follow the money” has merit. Investors continue to throw money at quantum computing startups, some of which we haven’t come across before. Let’s look at some of these new names, starting with one that’s recently emerged on the scene with some serious sex appeal.
More Quantum Computing Startups
MIT News published a piece a few weeks back titled “Cosmic rays may soon stymie quantum computing,” noting that in a few years’ time a qubit’s performance will soon hit a wall. PsiQuantum may have found a way around this.
Quantum Computing Using Photons
Founded in 2016, Silicon Valley startup PsiQuantum has now taken in $215 million in funding from investors that include Baillie Gifford, BlackRock, Founders Fund, and Atomico. All that money is being put to good use by a team of the world’s leading quantum computing scientists who plan to build the world’s first useful quantum computer using a photonic, or light-based, approach. Using existing chip fab processes, PsiQuantum plans to build a useful quantum computer with 1 million qubits that will then be capable of producing 200-300 error-corrected qubits.
Investors seem to be excited about what PsiQuantum has planned, something that’s difficult to glean from their sparse website. Raising $215 million is no easy feat for a moonshot technology like quantum computing (their latest round – a $150 million Series C – closed in April of this year). Bloomberg published a piece on this latest round disclosing some interesting tidbits.
The approach was originally thought to be only feasible using a computer the size of the Sierra Mountain Range. PsiQuantum’s team figured out how to shrink the machine down to the size of a conference room. GlobalFoundries, one of the world’s leading chipmakers, is now building PsiQuantum chips using standard manufacturing facilitates. Microsoft, one of the big-four when it comes to developing a quantum computer, is an investor in PsiQuantum. The startup’s chief architect happens to be Erwin Schrödinger‘s illegitimate grandson.
There’s more than enough information disclosed about this startup to make it appear quite tantalizing, but all that secrecy is a double-edged sword. Just as we start to recall the legendary fable of Elizabeth “Crazy Eyes” Holmes, we hearken back to the words of Mr. Downs. Those who achieve quantum supremacy won’t want the world to know about it. Still, it’s always tempting to up your nerd cred by letting the world know how much progress you’re making on your sacred cow. The CEO of PsiQuantum told Bloomberg to expect some meaningful progress to be made in “a handful of years.”
Full-Stack Quantum Computing
Founded in 2018, Israeli startup Quantum Machines has taken in $23 million in funding so far with their latest round – a $17.5 million Series A round – closing this past March. The startup offers a full-stack platform called Quantum Orchestration which helps researchers “push the boundaries of quantum experimentation and make industry-shifting discoveries. All with absolutely no development time.” Just today, they announced a partnership with another quantum computing newcomer – Q-CTRL – a Sequoia-backed startup that’s supplying “quantum firmware” for the platform. (Firmware is a specific class of computer software that provides the low-level control for a device’s specific hardware.)
Classical Meets Quantum
Founded in 2018, New Yawk startup Seeqc has raised nearly $12 million in disclosed funding from investors that include M Ventures (Merck’s venture arm) which led their latest round – a $5 million Series A – that closed this past spring. (Merck now has a quantum computing task force of 50 experts looking at how they can use quantum computing, so says the WSJ.) The startup “combines classical and quantum technologies to address the efficiency, stability and cost issues endemic to quantum computing systems.” Their proprietary digital chips will be co-located with qubit chips to “significantly lower the complexity for commercializing dedicated quantum computing applications,” says one of their investors. The company hopes to have an architecture that addresses a single real-world use case in three years’ time.
Quantum Protein Folding
Our next startup is also looking to meld the classical world with the quantum world while focusing on healthcare use cases. Founded in 2017, Toronto-based startup ProteinQure has taken in $4.6 million in disclosed funding to work on protein therapeutics. In our recent piece on Designing Proteins to be Molecular Machines, we talked about how vast the universe of undiscovered proteins is. ProteinQure co-founder Lucas Siow quantifies this on Medium stating, “While there are over 10⁶⁵ possible small proteins alone, humanity only knows the structure of approximately 150,000 proteins in total.” ProteinQure’s computational platform combines biophysical models with statistical and machine learning approaches. Similar to 1QBit, they’re hardware agnostic, utilizing all the latest advances in computing, including quantum computing if/when it finally arrives. It’s also worth noting that the CEO of Atomwise, the leader in artificial intelligence for drug discovery, sits on their board.
There are plenty of other promising quantum computing startups out there we haven’t covered yet, but we’re at the word limit for this article now. Its time to sod off to the pub and drink a pint or seven. If your exciting quantum computing startup didn’t make it into any of our quantum computing articles, drop us a line and we’ll try to sell you our content marketing services. Beats paying a PR firm thousands of quid so they can just turn around and ask us to articulate your amazing story.
We recently organized all 1,700 articles we’ve ever written into 48 tech themes we will follow going forward. Quantum computing is one of them. Our inner nerds can’t help but follow this exciting emerging technology. Even if today’s approaches end up being vaporware, there’s more than one way to skin Schrödinger’s cat.
When Geordie Rose, CTO at D-Wave, tells an audience of investors and experts how he plans to start pulling computing power from other dimensions, it feels just like when that unemployed musician crawls under your covers at 11:45 PM on a Tuesday night. The short-term excitement far outweighs the long-term disappointment. Or at least that’s what we keep telling ourselves.
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