Earlier this month, Intel announced the delivery of a 17-qubit quantum chip, in partnership with QuTech, its quantum research partner based in Holland. The new chip is significantly different to the one that has been used by phones, PCs and other devices for decades. It could point the way to radically increased capabilities in future computing.
Intel has produced various other quantum chips for testing. However, the new 17-qubit superconducting test chip is the first that the company has discussed publicly since it launched its 10-year collaborative partnership with QuTech two years ago.
In September 2015, Intel invested $50 million into the Delft University of Technology and TNO (the Dutch Organisation for Applied Research); organizations which dedicate engineering resources to accelerating research efforts in quantum computing. Intel is contributing its expertise in electronics and architecture, and advanced manufacturing; and the university, its expertise in physics and dedicated and diverse quantum computing research efforts.
The emergence of the 17-qubit quantum chip demonstrates the rapid strides which the partnership is making in their development of a working quantum computing system. It also underlines the necessity of material science and semiconductor manufacturing in seeing into being the potential of quantum computing.
Touted design features for the new 17-qubit quantum chip include:
- Innovative architecture that delivers higher reliability, increased thermal performance and reduced radio frequency (RF) interference between qubits.
- A scalable interconnect scheme that lets 10 to 100 times extra signals into and out of the chip in comparison to wirebonded chips.
- Cutting-edge processes, materials and designs that permit Intel’s packaging to scale for quantum integrated circuits, which are generally much bigger than traditional silicon chips. Intel’s scalable designs to package the qubit processors are the small size of a quarter.
Intel and QuTech’s work in quantum computing moves past the advance in and testing of superconducting qubit devices to encompass the entire quantum system (or “stack”) from qubit devices to the hardware and software architecture necessary to control these devices to the development of quantum applications. Intel is also exploring multiple qubit types, including the superconducting qubits incorporated into the newest test chip, and an alternate type called spin qubits in silicon.
In contrast to classical computing which works by encoding information in bits (represented by ones and zeroes), quantum chips use quantum bits, or qubits, which can be both ones and zeroes simultaneously. Qubits can exist in multiple states simultaneously, offering the possibility to compute a large number of calculations in parallel. Even though quantum chips are extremely fragile, only work for short periods of time and require extreme cooling (they need very cold temperatures to function), researchers believe that quantum chips could ultimately lead to greatly increased speeds in computing.
Quantum computing is not expected to eradicate the need for conventional computing or other emerging technologies; however, researchers believe that quantum computing has the potential to tackle issues that conventional computers can’t broach, for example, by simulating nature to further research in materials science or chemistry, or even by discovering new drugs.
Other major companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Google have unveiled their own developments in quantum computing in recent months. It is standard industry belief that no one corporation or organization will alone unlock the path to advanced quantum computing; but that industry partnerships such as the one between Intel and QuTech that bring together science and engineering will be key to solving such a technically complicated challenge. Nevertheless, Intel claims its fabrication and packaging expertise has a significantly competitive edge against other companies researching quantum computing.