In a Berkeley warehouse just down the street from the San Francisco Bay, Rigetti Computing is racing to build, in their own words, “the world’s most powerful computer.” Tech startups often boast of their ambitious visions to change the way we do X, the way we process Y. But Rigetti’s quest to accomplish nothing short of a new computer revolution might just outpace the rest.
Quantum computing—as a technology, a product, a brand—is at a crossroads. Quantum physicists and engineers at companies like Rigetti predict an exponential increase in processing power in a world with quantum computing. The quantum regime would break new ground in natural sciences, medicine, neurobiology, logistics, AI. It would solve unfathomably complex problems in minutes, maybe seconds. When you hear about quantum computing, it sounds like the future. But is it really possible, and will we see it in our lifetimes?
Most estimates put viable quantum computing at a few years down the road, at least in experimental or limited forms. Rigetti aims to unveil a quantum chip sometime next year that will outpace traditional supercomputers in certain processes. Some Silicon Valley behemoths competing in the quantum computing arms race like IBM, Google, and Microsoft, are all making moves to get the technology to market in a few years. Capital is certainly pouring in—Rigetti has raised nearly $70 million in three years, and bigger companies working on quantum are starting to divert resources to new divisions.
But Rigetti, once called the “cooler younger sibling of the quantum computing heavy hitters,” is, unlike the big boys, solely focused on building a technologically and commercially viable quantum computer or superconducting chip—all its eggs are in the quantum computing basket. CEO Chad Rigetti founded the company in 2013 as one of the world’s first full-stack quantum computing startups. After entering the Y Combinator, Rigetti found investors and that warehouse space in Berkeley and has been pushing hard for breakthroughs in a notoriously difficult tech field.
Even as the scrappy underdog, Rigetti has already developed a beta API for the cloud that allows users to test quantum computing themselves. Selected partners can stage a race between a quantum and classical computer and run a number of programs that experiment with quantum processing. Rigetti’s logic is that putting the tech in the hands of programmers could help incrementally advance the technology and expose its merits to the world. As Rigetti works on its personal goals, the broader technological scheme of quantum computing inevitably moves forward, inch by inch.
Eventually, Rigetti plans to create a cloud-computing service where programmers could pay to run their programs or solve problems on quantum computers or chips (IBM recently rolled out a similar API that is still essentially in beta). Before quantum computers start shipping to the suburbs, Rigetti could simply outsource quantum power to whomever might want it. Crowdsourcing the technology could lead it down some interesting paths. Engineers are already chattering about how quantum computing might accelerate other emerging tech fields like machine learning and AI. Previously vexing problems might be solved in an instant on quantum processing, and we might see new doors unlocked every day.
Of course, technical issues remain. Engineers have struggled to build and control qubits, the quantum equivalent of the classical bit. Qubits can interact with each other and run multiple protocols simultaneously, making chips with only a few qubits far more powerful than most traditional processors. But Rigetti and IBM have struggled to correct error-prone qubit calculations or prevent qubit processors from overheating, given the extreme power demands. It seems likely that in the next five years or so, quantum computing may remain highly experimental and limited to hard-core scientific applications, perhaps in fields of research that require high-volume calculations or which regularly confront multi-variable problems.
Still, Rigetti remains one of the few startups dedicated solely to quantum computing, and surely one of the best funded and most ambitious. Next year’s quantum chip reveal will surely make waves, and may signal a broader shift toward quantum technology that, once started, may never be reversed.