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Quantum computing is entering a new dimension

Software developers on a conference call are trying to get a quantum computer, a buzzy successor to today’s supercomputers, to do some of its magic. They want to see how well the experimental machine can reproduce a simple pattern of bars and stripes. 

After the team tees up some software code, a scientist with dreadlocks clicks a button to put the computer, located in a lab outside Denver, into action. A laser generates a magnetic pulse in the machine that sets atoms inside a vacuum chamber—the computer’s brain, of sorts—into motion.

Engineers with Zapata Computing, a startup that helps business customers create algorithms to use on quantum computers, are conducting the test. The company is renting use of a machine owned by industrial giant Honeywell, which considers quantum computing to be a huge business opportunity. 

And recently that opportunity—requiring years of painstaking tinkering on the necessary technology—is starting to generate revenue. Time on Honeywell’s quantum computer is fully booked for months. “You can talk about all the innovation you have and how great your technology is, but if no one is willing to pay for it, how valuable is it?” says Honeywell CEO Darius Adamczyk.

The half dozen or so companies that are serious about developing quantum computers, including Google, IBM, and Intel, plus startups such as Rigetti and IonQ, are reaching an important new phase: Customers are lining up and paying to use their machines. 

While quantum computers are still largely inferior to today’s basic desktop computers, the experiments give customers a taste of what’s possible. The challenge will be to improve the machines enough in the coming years so that they produce better results at a lower cost than any other kind of computer. 

Quantum computers are designed to harness the strange and powerful physics properties of so-called qubits (pronounced “cubits”), or quantum bits. Traits such as “superposition” and “entanglement,” when combined with “interference,” have the potential to solve problems in science and industry that are otherwise intractable, even to state-of-the-art supercomputers. 

Experts expect full-blown quantum computers to be ready in a decade, or longer. But in the meantime, the machines being built now could provide an edge—a “quantum advantage,” as IBM likes to say—in certain scenarios as soon as 2023

The quantum computing industry is currently small in terms of revenue, but it could grow very big over time. The total market for quantum hardware rentals is projected to rise to $9 billion in 2030 from $260 million today, according to research firm Tractica.

The real value, however, lies in the potential business opportunities that quantum technology is poised to unlock. For that reason, and for fear of falling behind rivals like China, the federal government along with private businesses in August promised to pour $1 billion into the fledgling industry. 

Major tech companies are already tussling for quantum dominance. And those that got an early start have a growing list of customers; IBM has more than 130 of them across business, academia, and government, for example. “Some people ask, ‘When are we going to have a real industry? When is commercial quantum going to be real?’ ” says Dario Gil, director of IBM research, during my visit to his mad-scientist-like lab in September. “That’s already started.”

Some people ask, ‘When are we going to have a real industry? When is commercial quantum going to be real?’ That’s already started.

Dario Gil, IBM Research director

Cloud-computing behemoths are latching onto the trend. Microsoft, which is working on its own moonshot quantum-computing hardware, started offering select Azure customers remote access to other partnering companies’ quantum computers in May. “We’re making this technology really accessible and lowering the barriers to adoption,” says Julie Love, Microsoft’s head of quantum computing business development.

Amazon opened the quantum gates in August to all customers of its huge Amazon Web Services cloud-computing division. The offering, which, like Microsoft’s, uses partners’ hardware, has made it easier than ever for just about anyone to gain access to the technology. 

Another member of the Big Tech club, Google, made waves last fall when it claimed to have achieved “quantum supremacy,” a term that describes when a quantum computer outpaces a classical supercomputer at a specialized task. Although that result is disputed by rival IBM, it speaks to the technical battle between companies vying for their own supremacy in the nascent industry. 

Recently, Google used a 12-qubit quantum computer to simulate a chemical reaction involving hydrogen and nitrogen atoms, a record-breaking achievement that graced the cover of the journal Science. The previous record holder was IBM, which three years earlier had modeled a molecule of half the size on a six-qubit machine (more qubits mean more sophisticated modeling). 

Such data crunching, in general, could one day lead to improved batteries and carbon-capture technologies, which explains why companies like Volkswagen (a Google partner), Exxon Mobil (IBM), and Daimler (both) are so keenly interested in the tech.

Earlier this year, Honeywell, a dark horse, surprised many people by bursting onto the quantum computing scene with a version of its own technology. The company is using a different hardware approach that replaces the specially designed, supercooled silicon chips favored by Google and IBM with laser-guided atoms in the machine’s guts. 

Precisely controlled lasers are at the heart of the operation of Honeywell’s quantum computer.
Courtesy of Honeywell

JPMorgan Chase, German shipping titan DHL, and pharmaceutical giant Merck are the latest big names to join Honeywell’s public list of customers. Kam Chana, director of computational platforms at Merck, explains that his company wants to use the computer for early-stage R&D so it can produce newer, more effective drugs and distribute medicine more efficiently at less cost.

Marco Pistoia, who leads research at JPMorgan’s “future lab,” says quantum computing could enhance his bank’s analysis of risk, a prime concern. Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and Visa are also exploring the tech, including for pricing complex financial derivatives and bolstering cybersecurity.

Stefan Woerner, IBM’s quantum applications lead, raises the possibility of quantum computers being used for smarter vehicle routing, the safer management of investment portfolios, as well as a better understanding of protein folding, a complex area of biology with medical implications.

With its bars-and-stripes experiment, Zapata’s team must wait hours to receive the final results from Honeywell’s computer, which, in these early days of quantum, is painfully slow. When they finally receive the finished product, they compare it to what an ideal quantum computer would have produced, to gauge the new technology’s limits when it comes to machine learning. The verdict? The pattern is as close to perfect as Zapata’s team could have hoped to see.

Such trials, while simplistic and plodding today, could eventually yield better techniques for detecting financial fraud or diagnosing diseases from MRI scans. In the meantime, quantum computers have a tendency to err, and accounting for and correcting those errors is the industry’s top priority.

Still, despite the current shortcomings, getting real value from quantum is inevitable, says Chris Savoie, Zapata’s chief executive, and that’s coming sooner rather than later. “If you’re not preparing for that and doing these experiments now, you’re not going to be able to catch up.” 

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Quantum speak

Like many futuristic fields, quantum computing comes with its own complex vocabulary. The following are some key terms to know. 

Qubits 

Not the biblical unit of measure, though it’s pronounced the same. Qubits are “quantum bits,” a turbocharged version of classical computing’s bits. Composed of atoms, photons, or other materials, they are the basis of quantum computing’s exponential potential.

Superposition 

Whereas classical bits, or “binary digits,” encompass just two states—often represented as “0” and “1”—qubits can assume any shade in between. Peculiarly, qubits can maintain this state only when no one is looking. 

Entanglement 

This flavor of superposition describes a shared state in which one qubit’s fate depends on another’s. Quantum-computer makers hope they’ll be able to harness entanglement to one day achieve bewilderingly fast, parallel processing power in their machines.

Noisy 

Today’s quantum computers aren’t loud, per se, but they are error-prone (or in scientific lingo, “noisy”). That’s partly because qubits are highly sensitive, even to the mildest disturbances, like a glancing photon. 

Quantum supremacy 

A theoretical milestone that describes a quantum computer performing a calculation no classical computer can replicate in any reasonable amount of time. Google claims to have achieved it last year, but IBM argues otherwise.

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Quantum competition

The battle for dominance in the nascent quantum computing market is fierce. Here are some of the main players: 

Google 

Last year, the search giant said it achieved a major milestone: “quantum supremacy.” But since then, it has lost some prominent members of its quantum team.

IBM

Big Blue has become one of the leaders in these newfangled business machines. It recently set a new goal: creating a 1-million-qubit machine by 2030, more powerful than any currently available. 

Honeywell

The industrial giant’s “trapped ion” hardware is a departure from the superconducting qubit machines pursued by IBM and Google.

Microsoft

The company’s development of a quantum computer has been slow going. In March, it began offering cloud-computing customers access to the machines of others. 

Alibaba 

In 2018, the Chinese company started offering access to a 12-qubit quantum processor through its Aliyun division. U.S. policymakers are alarmed by China’s gains in quantum.

A version of this article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Quantum enters a new dimension.”

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