The $50m Intel investment that's bringing quantum computing a little closer to the real world

Thanks to an investment in Dutch research, quantum computing is likely to leave the lab and hit the market a little sooner.

Big business's latest financial interest? Quantum computing.

Microsoft, Intel, Lockheed Martin, and Google have all invested in quantum computing research, spawning several research collaborations as a result. The most recent recipient to benefit from the technology industry's deep pockets is the QuTech Advanced Research Center, part of the Delft University of Technology, and TNO, the Dutch national research network. Last week, Intel announced a $50m investment in QuTech's quantum computing research.

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Intel invests $50m in quantum computing effort

Intel is the latest technology giant to invest in quantum computing research. Quantum computing, years away from commercialization, is supposed to be a huge leap forward.

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But quantum computers, expected to process information exponentially faster than today's machines, are nowhere near ready to hit the market. So with yet another research organisation pairing up with industry, just what will be the first application to affect consumers?

According to Edoardo Charbon, a scientist at QuTech, research in an area called quantum interactions could fuel the first practical application to come out of quantum computing research: software that pharmaceutical companies could use to design their drugs by modeling molecular interactions.

"I see this as the closest to be achieved because it doesn't require a million qubits," Charbon tells ZDNet.

Fast-working quantum algorithms need qubits, the basic elements of a quantum computer chip, to crunch math problems faster than classical computers. But exactly how to put enough qubits on a chip to run the fast code without failing has been stumping quantum computing researchers for years.

"It may be possible to better understand the properties of these molecules before they are synthesized, but this is still going to be very far away," Charbon says, estimating a lead-time of over a decade.

QuTech's strengths in designing the qubit-based chips could accelerate quantum computing's application discovery. In April, Leo DiCarlo, another QuTech scientist, and his colleagues discovered a method for putting five to 10 qubits on one chip, subsequently publishing their findings in Nature. QuTech aims to bring that number up to at least 50 to 100 qubits per chip.

QuTech focuses its work into three broad areas: fault-tolerant quantum computing, topological quantum computing, and quantum internet. The first two areas are concerned with developing viable quantum computer chips, and the third, quantum internet, aims to create a network of quantum processers that can communicate with each other as well as to and from users, in a 'quantum cloud'.

While the funding does not apply to QuTech's quantum internet research, "nonetheless, quantum internet is very important. This could have an impact perhaps sooner than a large-scale computer," says Charbon.

Still, the basic science that underpins quantum computing research has already started to impact other fields.

Charbon's research in quantum imaging finds better ways to detect single photons in light. Such research has helped microscopes achieve super resolution - between 10 and 20 nanometers, a discovery that won a researcher the Nobel prize in chemistry this year. And, Charbon says, advances in single photon detection could improve a phenomenon called proximity sensing, which today's smart phones use to determine whether someone is using the phone. In the future, the same technology could improve gesture recognition capabilities.

"Although science isn't a consumer application, many people might be touched by these particular applications, indirectly," Charbon says. For now, though, companies are betting their money will improve the quantum computing chips, themselves. The applications will follow.

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