Intel fabricates 49-qubit test chip for partner QuTech

“Step towards quantum supremacy” claims CEO Brian Krzanich at CES 2018

Earlier this week Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich took to the stage at CES in Las Vegas to unveil the company’s new 49-qubit superconducting quantum test chip, heralding it as “a step towards quantum supremacy”.

The new chip, Krzanich said, is “a major breakthrough for quantum computing” and comes just two months after Intel announced it had fabricated a 17-qubit test-chip.

Named Tangle Lake – after a chain of lakes in Alaska, “a nod to the extreme cold temperatures and the entangled state qubits require to function” the accompanying press release said – the chip represents a milestone towards Intel’s ambition to build a complete quantum computing system “from architecture to algorithms to control electronics”.

Krzanich proclaimed quantum computing’s potential to tackle “life changing, complex problems”, noting use cases in drug development, the discovery of new materials, financial modeling and climate forecasting.

But solving such examples is still a long way off. As Krzanich admitted: “there’s quite a bit more work required than just this chip”.

Intel's new 49-qubit test chip
Intel's new 49-qubit test chip

The unveiling of Intel’s 49-qubit test chip follows an announcement from IBM in December that it had developed a prototype 50-qubit machine.

Some commentators have claimed Tangle Lake brings Intel “neck and neck” with IBM in their quantum effort, although that’s not quite the case.

“This announcement differs substantively from IBM's in that IBM is both the fabricator and operator of their processor, and the IBM system has already been demonstrated as functional – coherence times were published at a conference recently,” University of Sydney Professor of Quantum Physics and Quantum Technology Michael Biercuk explained to Computerworld.

Read more: Four things to watch post-CES

IBM has stated that its 50-qubit system has close to 90 microseconds average coherence time. Intel has not yet published the results of any testing.

As Biercuk put it: "we need to be sanguine that building a 49 qubit device is not at all the same as operating a 49 qubit quantum computer”.

Other's were less impressed:

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IBM is already offering early access to its 20-qubit system to 12 commercial and research clients.

Tangle Lake however is not close to being commercialised, and will first be shipped to QuTech, Intel’s quantum research partner based at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

The QuTech team at work
The QuTech team at work

The QuTech team – which received US$50 million from Intel in 2015, and separately partners with Microsoft on its topological quantum effort – is currently testing the 17-qubit test chip it received from Intel in October.

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“With this test chip, we’ll focus on connecting, controlling and measuring multiple, entangled qubits towards an error correction scheme and a logical qubit,” said Professor Leo DiCarlo of QuTech at the time.

Google meanwhile is working towards demonstrating a 49-qubit quantum computer which had been expected at the end of last year. In November it announced a quantum computing partnership with Volkswagen

“It's important to say that there is a significant gap between fabricating a chip and operating it – in this case there is enormous classical electronic infrastructure required to measure and manipulate this number of qubits. It will be exciting to see both how this device works and what capabilities QuTech is able to bring online for operating this device,” Biercuk, CEO and founder of quantum control start-up Q-Ctrl, added.

Despite the hyperbole of Krzanich’s keynote and the media reports that followed, Intel is nevertheless patient in its quest to realise a fully-functional quantum computer.

“In the quest to deliver a commercially viable quantum computing system, it’s anyone’s game,” said Mike Mayberry, corporate vice president and managing director of Intel Labs.

“We expect it will be five to seven years before the industry gets to tackling engineering-scale problems, and it will likely require one million or more qubits to achieve commercial relevance.”

Biercuk added that those in and around the field needed to be realistic about how soon a quantum computer can be expected.

"As I like to say, the first 10-qubit superconducting quantum processor was announced in about 2005. It just didn't work, and took over a decade to realise one which did. Managing expectations in the technology, journalistic, and investment communities is essential to allow this field to flourish," he said.

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