Industrial giant Honeywell on Thursday said it is now live with a quantum computer running client jobs that uses six effective quantum bits, or qubits, and a resulting "volume" of compute that it claims makes the system the most powerful quantum machine currently in production.
The announcement fulfills a vow the company made in March to offer a machine with a quantum volume of 64, as related on March 3rd by ZDNet's Lawrence Dignan in a conversation with Honeywell's head of quantum, Tony Uttley, who is president of the division Honeywell Quantum Solutions.
"In March we said within the next three months we're going to be releasing the world's highest-performing quantum computer, and so this is a case of Honeywell did what it said it was going to do," Uttley told ZDNet in a telephone call.
Customers including J.P. Morgan Chase are using the machine with a variety of early applications, Uttley told ZDNet, some of which are prohibitively complex to carry out on a classical electron-based computer.
J.P. Morgan Chase has had "multiple hours of access" to the Honeywell machine, said Uttley, "and they are ecstatic." Uttley did not describe the applications in detail but said they are things "near and dear to financial services," including applications in fraud detection and implementing artificial intelligence approaches for trading strategies.
"What they've done are basically some test circuits," said Uttley, "circuits that they were not able to run on anybody else's computer, or at least not run without getting just a noise answer, they were able to successfully run on ours and have the correct results."
J.P. Morgan Chase this evening posted on the arXiv pre-print server their paper describing the work, "Canonical Construction of Quantum Oracles." The paper specifically thanks Honeywell, including Uttley, "for their invaluable help on the execution of our experiments on the Honeywell quantum computer."
Uttley declined to give the names of other customers but said multiple clients are working with the system on applications that fall into three categories: optimization, machine learning, and chemistry and materials science. Those customers are using the Honeywell system as a kind of co-processor to their ordinary classical computing jobs, the way a GPU graphics chip assists a CPU, a function that Uttley referred to as a "QPU."
"They're basically carving out as little as 1% to 5% of an algorithm and tacking that to the quantum computer to get a very specific result that gets then fed back into a classical machine," he explained.
Uttley's claim that Honeywell's system is tops in the world is based on a benchmark established by International Business Machines. As described in a paper published by scientists Andrew W. Cross and colleagues at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center on the arXiv pre-print server last October, the benchmark is a measure of "the largest random circuit of equal width and depth that the computer successfully implements."
The single metric that IBM chose is "quantum volume," a term that Cross and colleagues first proposed in 2017. Quantum volume combines multiple dimensions of a quantum computer's performance, as Cross and colleagues describe it, including "the performance parameters (coherence, calibration errors, crosstalk, spectator errors, gate fidelity, measurement fidelity, initialization fidelity) as well as the design parameters such as connectivity and gate set."
The metric is designed to be independent of the architecture of any given quantum computer so that it can measure any system that runs quantum circuits.
In practice, the volume, which is 64 in the case of the Honeywell computer, is the number 2 raised to a power N that is the number of effective qubits the computer has.
In many cases, a system's number of effective qubits is less than the raw, or physical, qubits in a system because some qubits are lost to error correction. But Uttley said Honeywell's computer doesn't lose any raw qubits because of superior system design.
"We are now at quantum volume of 64, which means we have six effective qubits," he said, meaning the number two raised to the power of six. "And unlike our competitors, it only took six qubits to get to six effective cubits, and that is because we are not limited by either the connectivity of our system, because our qubits are all fully connected, nor are we limited by our fidelity, which you can of think about as how accurate the system is."
Honeywell's hardware is different from other approaches in the quantum field. It is made up of trapped ions, an ion being an atom that has a net positive or negative electrical charge. The trap in this case is a fabricated device, like a computer chip, roughly the size of a quarter.
Trapping ions has been a scientific area of exploration going back over two decades. Ions are perceived as having some desirable properties versus other quantum approaches, including the relative stability of the qubits created with them, thanks to relatively long "coherence times" of the qubits, meaning, the period of time during which the all-important quantum entanglement can be maintained.
In a press release, Honeywell described its computer system as consisting of an "ultra-high vacuum chamber" in the form of a stainless steel sphere the size of a basketball with openings that allow in laser light. The chamber is cooled with liquid helium to 10 degrees above absolute zero, or 441 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
The ion trap sits inside the chamber. When laser light shines into the openings in the chamber and hits the trapped ions, quantum operations take place, and the manipulation of those operations is analogous to moving electrons through the gates made up of silicon transistors in a classical computer.
Honeywell has been revealing more and more about the system in meetings with the press and in formal publications over the course of the past year, including a partnership announced with Microsoft last November to give access to the system through Microsoft's Azure cloud service.
That partnership has been in a testing phase, with no live customers to date. The 64-volume system will be made available on Azure, said Uttley, and Honeywell and Microsoft "expect to be able to be in a place where customers are coming in through Azure in the next few weeks," following final testing, he said.
Uttley also reiterated another vow made in march, that the quantum volume the company is able to achieve will increase by an order of magnitude every year for the next five years.
"What we're saying is we would have at least ten effective qubits within a year," said Uttley. The number two raised to the power of 10 would equal a quantum volume of 1,024.
"We are even more confident that we are on a path to do that."
Unlike competitors, he said, who "have to go build something that doesn't exist," in the case of the Honeywell computer, "our system was built like an auditorium built for a certain capacity."
"It has all of the infrastructure, it has all the subsystems in place to operate at that capacity, and we've only filled a few seats. And so as we continue to fill those seats you can very rapidly scale up that quantum volume."