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Honeywell takes on Google and IBM at quantum computing

Honeywell says that it has the world's most powerful quantum computer.

Conceptual computer artwork of electronic circuitry with blue light passing through it, representing how data may be controlled and stored in a quantum computer.

Honeywell claims it's about to unveil the most powerful quantum computer yet using its unique trapped ion technology.

Illustration: Science Photo Library via Getty Images

The race to dominate the nascent field of quantum computing has a new contender: a 114-year-old company best known for making thermostats.

Honeywell announced today that it will unveil what it says is the most powerful quantum computer on the market in the next three months. The new machine will be at least twice as powerful as any other quantum computer currently available, according to Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions. The company released its findings on arXiv today, as it enters an increasingly crowded market for quantum computers that are still trying to find their place in the business world.

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The most visible players in quantum computing today are IBM and Google. Honeywell itself has been quietly developing its quantum system for the better part of a decade, and it's finally ready to talk in more detail about its plans. The company's history in heavy industry has it well-positioned to make a dent in the still-young quantum market, analysts told Protocol.

It's also forging ahead with a slightly different strategy than its competitors by going directly at clients and application with its technology from the get-go: It's already signing up partners, including JPMorgan Chase to develop new algorithms for the financial industry. Though Honeywell's been quiet up until now, it seems ready to play catch-up in a hurry.

"Google has readily shared its quantum successes with the market, whereas IBM has been a little less likely to do the same thing — and Honeywell's almost been doing this in the dark," said Daniel Newman, CEO and principal analyst at Futurum Research.

Honeywell's different approach to quantum

Quantum computing has made a relatively quick jump out of the lab over the last few years. IBM, one of the earliest pioneers in quantum computing, unveiled "Q," a cloud-services offering based on its quantum computers, in 2017. Last year, Google announced that its 5-year-old research division had built a quantum machine that could complete a calculation in minutes that would've taken a classical computer over 10,000 years. (IBM refuted that claim.) Microsoft also jumped into the fray in late 2019, with Honeywell, along with two other quantum companies, IonQ and QCI, to offer quantum processing on its Azure cloud-computing platform. A host of smaller firms, including D-Wave, Rigetti, 1QBit and Strangeworks, are also developing quantum technologies.

Partnerships, like the one between Honeywell and JPMorgan, are becoming increasingly common, as organizations bet on various quantum futures. IBM touts several high-profile partners, including ExxonMobil, Samsung, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan itself. Google has teamed up with NASA, and Rigetti's computers are now available through AWS.

Honeywell uses a slightly different metric to rate its quantum computers. Many reports tend to focus on how many quantum bits — qubits — computers have. Google's record-breaking machine had 54 qubits, considerably more than the five qubits IBM's Q service had in 2017. Honeywell, however, uses a metric called "quantum volume" (which was originally conceived by IBM) that measures the overall performance of the qubits in the quantum system, combining various metrics, such as the fidelity of the qubits in the system and how conductive they are. Uttley said that Honeywell plans to release its computer with a quantum volume of 64, but added that it also plans to increase its quantum volume by an order of magnitude every year for the next five years.

"It is pretty rare in a technological sense to have a company define their product using a definition proposed by a different company," said James Sanders, an analyst at 451 Research covering cloud transformation.

Uttley said he's hoping the tight-knit quantum-computing community reacts positively to Honeywell's research, adding, "I'm prepared for it not to be the case."

"IBM is excited to see the wider quantum computing community embrace the quantum volume metric," said Jerry Chow, a senior manager of quantum system technology at IBM Research. "This result confirms quantum volume is the best hard agnostic benchmark to measure progress of quantum computers." Chow added that IBM "reached a quantum volume of 32 on a 28-qubit superconducting system," back in January. "Honeywell's paper shows exciting new progress in programmable trapped-ion quantum systems," Chow said. (Google declined to comment on Honeywell's announcement.)

Whereas Google and IBM use superconducting qubits as the underlying technology to build their quantum computers, Honeywell uses something called trapped-ion qubits. Both Sanders and Uttley told Protocol that it's too early to say whether one approach will prevail over another — we're not quite yet in a quantum-computing format war — but Uttley said he sees the potential in the future for hybrid systems that could be running some combination of classical computers and multiple different types of quantum computers optimized for different tasks.

Over the last decade, Honeywell set itself targets to determine whether quantum was something it should continue trying to explore. It hit its biggest milestone in 2015, Uttley said, when it was able to build its own ion traps: the technology Honeywell is exploring with its quantum computers that uses lasers to trap electrically charged atoms into a superpositioned state. It's a similar technique to how some of the most accurate atomic clocks are made. After building its traps, Honeywell organized the research into a business group. The team has spent the last four years perfecting its quantum system, announcing an early test with Microsoft in November.

"I think right now, especially in these early days, it's way too premature to rule anything out — how things evolve over the long term, I don't know," Uttley said.

What is Honeywell developing for quantum computers?

However impressive these machines are, the efforts mean little unless they have something to do. Today, Honeywell also announced that it's invested in two software companies specializing in quantum computers, Cambridge Quantum Computing and Zapata Computing. Cambridge is working to develop quantum algorithms for cybersecurity and chemistry, and Zapata is working on optimizing the most complex workflow problems companies have with its algorithms, such as finance and logistics. Both companies' software can run on a variety of quantum computers. (For more on these companies, see our story on quantum algorithms.)

Many of the industries that Honeywell already operates in, such as aerospace and materials design, could be potentially disrupted by the computing power of quantum machines, Uttley said. But for other areas, it will look to industry leaders to develop new algorithms.

"We believe the industries that Honeywell is in today are going to be profoundly impacted," Uttley said. "But there are other areas like financial services where we absolutely want to partner with experts to be able to take advantage of the kinds of capabilities that we can bring to bear."

That's also why it's partnering with JPMorgan Chase. The partnership reflects two companies "committed to finding the value opportunities in quantum to solve real-world challenges like fraud detection," Newman said. It's an important step toward figuring out how to monetize the technology, he added. "The average CIO or CFO is still looking at this and asking, 'How is this impacting my business?'" Newman said.

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It might still be early days in the industry, but Honeywell is joining an increasingly crowded field of hardware manufacturers, and in the same way that any new platform needs developers to figure out the transformative ways the technology can be used, the real problem that needs to be solved now is software. "The hardware development is actually a bit further along than a lot of this software development is — there needs to be a lot more programmers and researchers," Sanders said.

"I think now is definitely the time to start investigating what types of workloads or what types of problems that you might be able to solve with quantum computers," Sanders said. "If companies have developers that have a bit of time that they can dedicate to just researching what's next, this is a good time to do that."

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