Tech giants Google, IBM, and Intel are racing to build a quantum computer using a method pioneered by Yale professor Robert Schoelkopf. As they compete to create a machine capable of accelerating everything from drug discovery to artificial intelligence, they face fierce competition from Silicon Valley startup Rigetti Computing Robert Schoelkopf himself.
After conducting research that fueled the work of so many other scientists and researchers, Schoelkopf and two other Yale professors started their own company, Quantum Circuits, which has obtained $18 million (approximately 22.9 million Canadian dollars) in funding from the venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital and various other backers.
Schoelkopf stated, “In the last few years, it has become apparent to us and others around the world that we know enough about this that we can build a working system. This is a technology that we can begin to commercialize.”
Quantum-computing systems do not behave like typical computers, and they are able to perform calculations at rates far beyond that which is possible for other systems. While most computers store information as “bits,” with each transistor holding either a 1 or a 0, a quantum bit (qubit) can store a 1 and a 0 at the same time, using what is known as the superposition principle. Two qubits can hold four values at once, four qubits can hold eight, and so forth, causing the machine to become exponentially more powerful. While large, complex problems could take a classic machine decades or even centuries to solve, a quantum computer could solve them in mere hours.
Microsoft quantum project leader Todd Holmdahl described a quantum computer as being able to instantly navigate a maze, stating that a quantum computer will scour all paths at once, rather than trying one path at a time until it no longer gets blocked like the average computer.
Despite a quantum computer’s power and the ability to perform complex calculations, it does face some setbacks. For instance, information can only be stored on a quantum system for a short amount of time, which often leads to errors in calculations. However, physicists such as Schoelkopf have worked to solve the problem using superconducting circuits, which exhibit quantum properties when cooled to extremely low temperatures. This technique, known as Schoelkopf’s Law, allows them to improve coherence times by a factor of ten.
According to Isaac Chuang, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Schoelkopf’s Law began as a joke and a playful ode to Moore’s Law, which is the rule that states that the number of transistors on computer chips will double every two years. However, over time, they began using it in many of their research papers. “No one expected this would be possible,” he said, “but the improvement has been exponential.”
Quantum-computing research and the superconducting circuits have since expanded across the industry. A former student of Schoelkopf’s now leads the quantum-computing program at IBM. Another Yale professor involved with Schoelkopf’s research, Michel Devoret, studied with the founder of Rigetti Computing. Google has recently indicated that it is on the verge of building a machine capable of achieving “quantum supremacy.”
Tech giants such as Google and IBM have a clear head-start considering their exposure, financial backing, and manpower. However, startups are not giving up without a fight, and they have their own advantages.
Though Bill Coughran helped oversee the creation of Google’s infrastructure, he is now investing in Schoelkopf’s company as a partner at Sequoia. “I have yet to see large teams inside big companies doing anything tremendously innovative,” he said.
Schoelkopf and his company, Quantum Circuits, also have an advantage over its competitors due to its creative approach. Unlike the other companies and researchers, who are focusing on building one large quantum computer, his company is constructing a network of smaller machines, which will make it easier to correct errors. As the competition heats up, it will certainly be interesting to see who comes out on top.