We were running out of time on the Zoom call.
I was on a call with Cambridge Quantum Computing, a British company creating software to run on the quantum computers of tomorrow, and Honeywell, which claimed in March to have the most powerful quantum computer available today. Like everything these days, I was being introduced to what could well be the future of computing on a videoconferencing session, and Zoom's free 45-minute session was about to expire.
Seyon Sivarajah, a researcher at CQC, was running me through how he works with computers like Honeywell's as I was kicked off the call. While bits in a quantum computer can be both 1 and 0 at the same time, and anything in between, there is still a definite finality to the amount of time Zoom will let you chat for free.
With a connection reestablished, Sivarajah started to show me what he was using the computer for today. Although Honeywell only announced its beta program for its quantum computers in March, quantum division head Tony Uttley told me that CQC has had access to its machines since the fourth quarter of 2019, and had already logged thousands of hours of time in Honeywell's system. The goal is to create algorithms for clients that could help them compute things that would either take far too long on traditional machines, or might not even be possible. For CQC, that means companies in the chemical, energy, financial services and materials-science industries.
What I saw on Sivarajah's shared screen was a bunch of Python code. It was not, to my layman's eyes, particularly different from what any average developer might have up on their screen during a normal workday. In reality, that code was being fed by a developer in England to a quantum computer organization based in Colorado and being watched by me in Brooklyn. Sivarajah was testing out a novel feature of Honeywell's machine, called mid-circuit measurement, which allows a program to observe the state of a qubit and then reuse that same bit later in the calculation. With many other quantum computers, checking on the state of a bit would cause it to decohere and it would no longer be useful for the remainder of the calculation.
Essentially, Honeywell's breakthrough would allow quantum calculations to carry on for longer, meaning more information could be gleaned before all the qubits in the system decohered into an error-prone mass of noise. "[With] long coherence times, now you have a lot of capability to do long algorithms," Uttley said.
The laser system used in Honeywell's trapped-ion quantum-computing system.Honeywell
Working with quantum computers on a daily basis does not look anything like the TV show "Devs." There is no magnetically levitated room encased in gold, and in the case of Honeywell's computer, there's not even a shiny chandelier system like other machines from IBM and Google have. There is hours of checking and double-checking code, making sure what you've written will be readable by the systems associated with the quantum computer, and hoping, using a ton of quantum physics calculations, that your code will execute as you expected. In short, the future of computing looks a lot like the present — barring perhaps the need to read a physics textbook or two.
But that's the goal of what companies like CQC are doing with Honeywell's computer. The aim is to be able to build systems that companies can use, whether that's financial services optimization, trading strategies or discovering new chemical compounds. "We have a lot of different partners who are testing different things that show promise, and they tend to fall into three high-level categories, around optimization, machine learning and basic chemistry," Uttley said.
For the most part, Honeywell's computer operates on software that other quantum computers use (CQC, for example, also works with IBM), but the unique properties of its machines are an additional learning curve right now. "Many of these organizations we're working with, we have to teach them how to use something like mid-circuit measurement and qubit reuse," Uttley said, "and that's because that's not something that anybody else can do." But the hope is that these additional features — Uttley added that a client recently completed a task that had required 20-odd qubits on a competitor's machine only used six on Honeywell's — will be a differentiating factor moving forward. "It's fun for me to see those customers, the lightbulb kind of goes off and they go, 'Wow, we can do this,'" Uttley said.
For now, much of the work that Honeywell's partners are doing will look a lot like what I saw, minus the Zoom call. They're testing their hypotheses and seeing if they can get similar answers on the quantum computer, with the hope that the calculations they can run will get increasingly complex as the technology improves.
Quantum computers are still very much in their earliest days. Depending on whose measurement you use, Honeywell's system is one of the most performant available. IBM says it's on a path now to one day crack the million-qubit milestone that many experts believe is what quantum machines need to hit to unlock all the revolutionary uses we expect of them. Either way, it's likely to be a long while before they're going to get there. IBM says it will have a 1,000-qubit machine in 2023 (or one-thousandth of that eventual goal), and Uttley previously told me that Honeywell has a plan to increase the volume of its quantum computer by an order of magnitude every year for the next five years.
For companies looking for the quantum revolution, Uttley preaches caution. Honeywell is still in the phase of proving out that its machines do what's expected, but eventually they'll get to the place where they can start to solve problems that would be infeasible on classical computers. Uttley's team is constantly improving its work, meaning they only work with a few companies at a time. "There's a scarcity element here," he said. "It's not meant to frighten people, it's just meant to be realistic; there's no point in making 100 versions of something that you know will be outdated by the time that all those things are set up."
Part of the laser array used in Honeywell's computer.Photo: Honeywell
Like any new technology, some companies are going to see the value before others. There are organizations that have waited until the current pandemic to reconsider the business value of having on-premise servers in 2020, while others have been running on the cloud for well over a decade now and looking for what's next. Quantum, while far headier a concept, is no different. "We've had conversations that the first question that somebody asks is, 'How much money is this going to save me right now?' and we say, very politely, 'Sorry for wasting each other's time right now,'" Uttley said On the flipside, he said he's had conversations with businesses in the same field as those asking for immediate savings who have come with their own quantum theorists and are raring to go. "One is going to just be lightyears ahead of the other in terms of being able to both take advantage of and get the value out of this as early as possible," Uttley said.
Just this week, JPMorgan Chase released a research paper on the work it's been doing on mid-circuit measurement and reusing qubits on Honeywell's machine. "There's a few sets of people on the planet who know how to do quantum programming," Uttley added.
On the second Zoom call, Sivarajah's test of whether he got the results he was expecting starts to finish, and he can see the errors start to build up where he expected. Sivarajah and CQC had to book time to use Honeywell's computer (as CQC is not the only company Honeywell is working with) in a spreadsheet to test out its models, much like researchers time-sharing on the earliest computer mainframes. If that's where we are with quantum computers, there's still a long road ahead.
Right now, coding for quantum computing is still far from a task that any developer can dive into for a weekend of hacking, but Uttley is hopeful of that future coming sooner rather than later, given the partners he already has.
"The thinking is so different from classical computing and from traditional physics," Uttley said. "You have brilliant physicists who are coming up with some of these great ideas, and then groups like CQC who can abstract that a layer into a software that other people don't have to worry about the magic that is happening after you type in the code that you want."