Quantum computing manual

For the quantum computing industry, COVID-19 is more a speedbump than a brick wall

"We've always known this was going to be a marathon."

The labs of Quantum startup ​IonQ

Quantum startup IonQ currently limits the number of people working in its lab because of COVID-19.

Photo: IonQ

Throughout Maryland's coronavirus stay-at-home order, which began on March 30, Christopher Monroe has been able to log on to his company's quantum computers from the comfort of his own home. Since he co-founded the startup IonQ in 2015, the company has built two prototype machines that he and his team can control remotely to execute algorithms.

"We're running jobs all the time, every day," Monroe says.

IonQ's machines, whose qubits are made of laser-controlled ytterbium atoms, only require "a little bit of babysitting," as Monroe puts it — an occasional in-person visit to the lab to reboot the quantum computer when it freezes. Otherwise, these largely automated devices have enabled IonQ software developers to proceed with algorithm design without significant delay during quarantine, even as employees work from home.

Indeed, the pandemic has relatively spared the quantum computing industry so far. At the moment, most companies can continue a lot of their research remotely because of prescient decisions in the last few years to put quantum computers on the cloud. In 2016, IBM led the pack by being the first company to offer online access to their quantum computers. Other companies, such as Bay Area startup Rigetti Computing and Canada-based D-Wave Systems, followed suit.

In fact, companies have continued to expand cloud services during the pandemic. Before the pandemic took hold, IonQ had partnered with Microsoft's cloud service Azure and Amazon Web Services to put its quantum computers on the cloud, and the startup is currently working to make them available to the general public. Toronto-based startup Xanadu recently put its quantum computer on the cloud for a select group of users, says CEO Christian Weedbrook. Meanwhile, the Bay Area-based quantum software startup QC Ware plans to launch the next version of Forge, its cloud-based quantum computing platform, later this month.

Another bump in the road

In many ways, the global pandemic is just the latest hurdle along an already obstacle-littered path for the quantum computing industry. While researchers have long touted the potential paradigm-shifting nature of quantum technology, the industry, largely fueled by venture capital, has never promised short-term returns. Instead, companies have mostly been careful to qualify that the revolution will arrive over the course of years or even decades, not months, due to the complexity of the task in hand. "We've always known this was going to be a marathon," says Matt Johnson, the CEO of QC Ware.

Still, the public health crisis has left one significant mark. In particular, hardware developers — the researchers building the next generation of quantum computers — have had to adapt.

"[COVID-19] is fundamentally changing the way the team works, as experimental quantum research involves hands-on work in labs and fabrication facilities," Jay Gambetta, vice president of quantum computing at IBM, says. At IBM's labs, the company has managed to keep all 18 of its quantum computers online, but it has had to implement safety protocols to prevent potential spread of the disease.

For similar reasons, IonQ currently limits the number of people working in its lab. Meanwhile, no one has entered the lab at Xanadu for over six weeks. "There's been a lot of challenges on the hardware side," Weedbrook says. Xanadu builds so-called photonic quantum computers, devices that compute using light. These machines contain silicon chips fabricated in foundries worldwide, many of which have been closed during the pandemic, which has delayed Xanadu's plans for building new prototypes.

QC Ware, although a software company, has also had to shift focus. Prior to the pandemic, the company generated revenue by working directly with companies such as Airbus and BMW to develop relevant quantum algorithms for their industries. With the economy in a downturn, QC Ware has fewer clients and is instead focusing more attention on building its cloud-based platform.

Look to the future

Indeed, the industry as a whole is certainly planning for a life well beyond the current crisis. IonQ is undergoing a building renovation to triple its physical space. Venture capitalists looking for new investments have reached out to Weedbrook during the pandemic. And IBM is launching a "quantum challenge" the first week of May, in which the company invites anyone and everyone to execute four increasingly complex exercises on their quantum cloud.

But companies are wary, because it's still too early to tell for sure how the pandemic will alter the course of quantum computing development, Gambetta says.

"We're in good shape," Weedbrook says of his company. "But we don't want to take anything for granted." Similarly, Johnson said his startup is "well-positioned" to make it through the pandemic, but he thinks that its consequences are bound to change how the industry operates to some degree. "In the long term, quantum computing companies are going to have to stay very lean," he says. "Anyone running a quantum computing company is going to have to do more with less."

Still, for Monroe, the pandemic has crystallized society's need for faster optimization calculations and more accurate numerical models, two classes of problems that quantum computers should excel at. In particular, Monroe thinks that with further development, a future quantum computer could serve the public health community by accelerating vaccine development. "I know a lot of [vaccine development] has to do with trial and error, and accurate modeling," he says. "This is really one of the domains where quantum computing can play a role. Not now, not this month — but in the future."

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