This quantum computer with a 3D chip is heading into the cloud

A University of Oxford spinout startup aims to compete against US-based tech giants in providing access to quantum computing over the internet.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Ilana Wisby is the CEO of Oxford Quantum Computing, a spin-out from the University of Oxford in the UK.

Image: Oxford Quantum Computing

A startup in the UK is now offering cloud-based access to its own superconducting quantum computer – but with a twist that it hopes could one day help it compete against the processors developed by quantum giants such as IBM and Google. 

Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC), a startup that spun out of the University of Oxford, is approaching superconducting quantum computing slightly differently. Leading superconducting quantum systems are typically built in a two-dimensional plane, with each qubit acting like a unit cell that requires intricate wiring for controls and measurements. Increasing the number of qubits means increasing the amount of wiring – and on a 2D plane, this comes with a higher risk of creating environmental noise that can damage the quality of the system.   

Instead, OQC's researchers use a three-dimensional architecture that moves the control and measurement wiring out of plane. With key componentry off-chip, says OQC, the superconducting quantum processor is a more flexible and engineerable system.

SEE: Building the bionic brain (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Dubbed the "Coaxmon," this new design approach ultimately has the potential to make it is easier to scale up the number of qubits on the processor without losing coherence, the company said.  

"The Coaxmon was designed from principle to meet some of the underlying scaling challenges with superconducting technologies," Ilana Wisby, the CEO of OQC, tells ZDNet. "We've taken all of that wiring – which is a really big element to reducing the power of what we can do with a processor – off the chip, meaning that the Coaxmon is inherently a lot more scalable." 

According to Wisby, the 3D architecture means that it is possible to increase the qubit count on the processor without resorting to complex fabrication steps for extra wiring, and without running the risk of reducing the system's coherence. 

Despite the promising pitch, the quantum computer that OQC has just brought online, called Sophia, is only four qubits strong. In comparison, IBM's current quantum processor can support 65 qubits, and the company is working towards launching a 127-qubit system by the end of the year. 

Even then, IBM's quantum computer won't be bringing any significant business value for users: quantum technologies are not expected to start showing any real-world usefulness until they are capable of supporting at least 1,000 qubits. In that light, OQC's new quantum computer still seems to have some way to go before it can compete against the services offered by some of the largest corporations dominating the quantum ecosystem. 

But Wisby explains that this is just the start. As a University of Oxford spinout, she says, OQC has until recently mostly developed in the context of university labs, where cost efficiency was key and minds were focused on proving the fundamentals of the technology. 

In the last year, however, OQC built and opened its own quantum lab, a facility fitted with all of the cryogenic equipment, cleanrooms, power and data supplies, ducted fume cupboards and other exotic quantum essentials that are necessary to building up a quantum system.  

Sophia's low qubit count is, therefore, a business problem rather than a technology one, argues Wisby. "But setting up our own independent commercial lab has marked a moment of independence for the company," she says.  

"It's only really now that we've changed our company goals to proving the business model, which obviously has more focus on scaling the full system." 

The long-term goal, she assures, is to build a universal, fault-tolerant quantum computer – an objective that aligns with that of the largest tech giants currently developing quantum technologies.  

Of course, there remain many obstacles to scaling. While increasing the number of qubits in the processor is a challenge in itself, it is also key to ensure that the overall system's support infrastructure and architecture can grow in parallel. OQC, therefore, has secured partnerships with companies like Oxford Instruments to start thinking about the future iterations of Sophia. 

For now, OQC is focusing on attracting customers to its brand-new cloud service, which it has just launched to provide customers with access to Sophia via a private cloud. 

OQC has now invited businesses to join the company's beta list, to test how they could experiment with new quantum approaches. With only four qubits, however, the scope of potential applications will remain very limited.   

Among those already signed up, fellow UK-based quantum computing company Cambridge Quantum is already planning to test Sophia with its IronBridge platform – a cybersecurity service that leverages the unpredictability of quantum computers to generate un-hackable cryptographic keys. 

Wisby also points to a long-standing partnership with software company Riverlane, which has already been using OQC's quantum computer to run a chemical simulation algorithm names alpha-VQE.  

Riverlane and OQC have also been working together to develop a quantum operating system, Deltaflow.OS, which would allow the same quantum software to run on different types of quantum computing hardware. 

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