Intel has taken a big step in the increasingly crowded quantum computing space with the introduction this week of a 17-quibit test chip that company officials say includes a unique design that will deliver a greater yield and performance than other offerings. Intel is working with a company in the Netherlands, QuTech, as it looks to gain traction in a market that already includes the likes of IBM, Google and Microsoft.
The architecture of the superconducting test chip, which Intel described as the size of a quarter but that is part of a package about the size of a half-dollar coin, provides improved reliability, thermal performance and reduced radio frequency (RF) interference between qubits, an interconnect design that is scalable and allows for 10 to 100 times more signals into and out of the chip when compared with wirebonded chips, and packaging that scales to support quantum integrated circuits, which are significantly larger than conventional silicon chips. The packaging is made possible by advanced processes, materials and designs, officials said.
The new chip will advance the work that Intel and QuTech are doing in the area of quantum computing, according to QuTech Professor Leo DiCarlo.
“With this test chip, we’ll focus on connecting, controlling and measuring multiple, entangled qubits towards an error correction scheme and a logical qubit,” DiCarlo said in a statement. “This work will allow us to uncover new insights in quantum computing that will shape the next stage of development.”
Quantum computing is a transformative technology that’s been talked about for decades; it promises systems that are multiple times faster than current supercomputers. Companies for the past several years have been leaning on faster CPUs and accelerators such as GPUs, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and faster interconnects to help advance their work in areas like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and neuromorphic computing (systems that can mimic the functions of the brain).
Many of those same vendors are pursuing quantum computing. At the center of quantum computing are qubits. Current systems use bits that hold values of 0 or 1. But qubits—or quantum bits—can be 0 and 1 at the same time, which opens up the possibility of systems running through millions of calculations simultaneously and at high speeds.
Intel officials called quantum computing the “ultimate in parallel computing,” with systems that can run workloads that current systems can’t. However, there are myriad challenges to developing quantum computing systems, not the least of which is that qubits are fragile. While they be entangled—sharing the same state with two or more qubits—they can revert back to one of the two states if affected by an outside source like noise, which can lead to data loss.
To counter that, they need to operate in extreme cold environments—about 20 millikelvin, or 250 times colder than deep space—which means that packaging of the qubits is key, company officials said. Intel’s Components Research Group and Assembly Test and Technology Development units are focusing on the design and packaging technologies.
“Our quantum research has progressed to the point where our partner QuTech is simulating quantum algorithm workloads, and Intel is fabricating new qubit test chips on a regular basis in our leading-edge manufacturing facilities,” Michael Mayberry, corporate vice president and managing director of Intel Labs, said in a statement, adding that the chip maker’s expertise in fabrication, control electronics and architecture “sets us apart and will serve us well as we venture into new computing paradigms, from neuromorphic to quantum computing.”
Intel will need these advantages because some other heavy hitters in the tech field are putting quantum computing in their sights. IBM has a project underway called IBM Q aimed at building commercial quantum computers and is developing its own chips, unveiling a 17-qubit chip earlier this year. The company also has made its quantum computing technology available in the IBM Cloud.
Other top-tier companies include Google, which two years ago introduced a nine-qubit chip and has demonstrated a 50-qubit computer in conjunction with the University of California, Santa Barbara. It also is an investor in D-Wave, which has claimed to offer the first commercial quantum computers, though critics say they aren’t true quantum systems. Microsoft also has made its move with a research lab called Station Q and the development of a coding language and simulators for quantum computing that are due for availability later this year.
Other players include Nokia Bell Labs and Lockheed Martin.
Intel views its collaborative partnership with QuTech as key to its efforts. The two companies began working together in 2015 and have made strides that include developing a spin qubit fabrication flow on the chip maker’s 300mm process technology and the unique packaging for the 17-qubit superconducting test chip. The two organizations also are working on other parts that will make up a quantum computing system, including the hardware and software architecture and quantum applications.
Intel officials said they also are developing multiple types of qubits, including superconducting qubits and spin qubits that resemble a single electron transistor that is similar to conventional transistors.
Quantum computing is getting a lot of attention from the investor community. According to a Deloitte Insights report, venture capital firms have invested $147 million in quantum computing startups, while governments around the world have given researchers $2.2 billion in financial support.