Making sense of the quantum computing ecosystem
So far in this series we have examined the mighty powers of the miniscule qubit and discovered the world changing applications of quantum technology. This time we take a step back to explore the quantum computing ecosystem: who makes up the industry, which milestones have been reached, and what research and development is happening right now?
The image above illustrates some of the key contributors to the quantum computing ecosystem. At the bottom of the quantum computing stack we have the hardware companies, who build physical quantum computers. There are many different ways to build a quantum computer and this depends on the type of qubit technology used by each company. Quantum hardware companies are currently trying to scale up their quantum computers and include enough error corrected qubits to reach quantum advantage. We don’t yet know which type of hardware will win the race and be able to run commercially relevant applications.
Further up the stack, quantum software companies develop products which utilise quantum hardware to run algorithms. The software products can be used by researchers and enterprise customers for applications such as drug discovery and battery material screening. At the top of the image, we have enterprise customers and quantum start-ups that specialise in a particular application, such as drug discovery company ProteinQure.
For more information on the quantum ecosystem, The Quantum Daily has recently released a detailed industry mapping tool. The Quantum Technology Innovation Network at KTN have also developed an interactive tool, mapping business, projects and research groups in the UK.
The tech giants
Technology giants like Google and IBM are big players in the quantum race. In October 2019, Google claimed to have reached quantum advantage by demonstrating a calculation on their quantum computer that was beyond the capabilities of a classical computer. Using tiny superconducting loops and 53 qubits, Google were able to calculate outputs from a quantum random number generator in 3 minutes and 20 seconds. Even the most powerful supercomputer would take potentially thousands of years to complete the same calculation. Although the calculation itself is of little practical use, the evidence of capability was a significant breakthrough.
In March 2017 IBM announced an initiative called IBM Q, to build commercially available universal quantum computing system. They are currently designing new quantum algorithms and error mitigation techniques to build fault tolerant quantum computers.
In the last five years, more than 150 quantum computing start-ups, university spin-outs and research groups have been formed across the globe. A comprehensive list can be found here.
At the time of writing, $1.4bn of private investment has poured into the industry with a total of 227 funding rounds (crunchbase). Significant funding rounds include Finnish start-up IQM, with a Series A round of $46.5M in November 2020, to accelerate hardware development and co-design application-specific quantum computers. IQM use superconducting qubits in their quantum hardware, similar to Google and to other quantum start-ups such as Rigetti and Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC). OQC have developed innovative technology that brings key components off-chip. This reduces qubit quality reduction, to enable easier scalability.
Canadian start-up Xanadu takes a different approach, by designing quantum photonic semiconductors using photons rather than electrons to carry information. According to Xanadu, photons are more stable than electrons and are almost unaffected by random noise from heat. PsiQuantum and Orca Computing are also developing photonic hardware. PsiQuantum expect a commercial quantum computer as soon as 2025.
Ion-trap quantum hardware companies include IonQ, Universal Quantum, and Oxford Ionics. We completed our first successful trials of Deltaflow, Riverlane’s quantum operating system, with Oxford Ionic’s quantum computer in August 2020.
One of the challenges for quantum software start-ups is whether to design algorithms for one particular type of hardware, or to take the challenging route of ensuring that their software works across all technologies.
Riverlane’s piece in the puzzle
Riverlane was founded in 2016 as a spin-out from the University of Cambridge. Our Founder and CEO, Steve Brierley, has a vision to make quantum computers as transparent and well known as RaspberryPi. For quantum computers to be useful, they need an operating system. Riverlane is developing Deltaflow, which makes use of the full quantum computing stack, allowing quantum programmers more control over their experiments. The first version of Deltaflow was released in December last year and is available here.
The Riverlane team continues to focus on improving their software products and increasing performance, in close collaboration with industry partners. As part of these collaborations they are also developing an advisory tool that calculates the quantum resources required to solve a given problem, such as molecular chemistry. The tool will incorporate the latest developments in quantum algorithms and search combinations of methods to find the best solution.
Why collaboration is key to success
Competition is fierce in the quantum industry. The race is on to overcome the challenges of scalability and error correction to enable commercial quantum computers. However, due to the many complex elements involved, collaboration across the quantum computing stack is a vital element to achieve success. We need diversity of thought and a multitude of skills to make things happen.
Commercialising quantum computers is a momentous and exciting challenge. We need the best people in the world working together to make this happen.
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