In the game
Waterloo’s not taking a back seat to IBM in quantum computing race
WATERLOO — IBM says it is ahead of all challengers in the worldwide race to develop and deploy quantum computers.
It is an important development for Waterloo Region, where hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private funds have been invested in the research and development of quantum computers and related technology.
For nearly three years now anyone has been able to register on the IBM Q site and use a quantum computer free of charge. Once the stuff of science fiction and research labs, quantum computers can now be accessed on the internet.
Quantum computers and other quantum devices harness the traits of atomic particles — atoms, electrons, neurons, ions, photons and the like — to run computations and process information.
“I think we have the most complete program,” says Bob Sutor, vice-president for IBM Q ecosystem and strategy.
“And I think every single element, from theoretical physics to building the quantum device to hosting it, to making it available — it has been in the cloud for 2 ½ years — I don’t think anyone would argue that we are not ahead,” said Sutor.
And at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, IBM announced it is opening a quantum computation centre for commercial partners in Poughkeepsie, NY. It also announced that some of the world’s top research labs, including CERN, Argonne National Laboratory, Fermilab and Lawrence Berkeley are joining the IBM Q Network.
“We are building up this collection of hubs and partners around the world including some universities,” Sutor said of the IBM Q Network. “And we are very interested in fact in doing one in Canada at some point. We are talking to various people about the possibilities there.”
That IBM Q Network includes universities, several Fortune 500 companies, startups and research labs that work with IBM to advance quantum computing. Members have exclusive access to what IBM says is the biggest quantum computer in the world. The smaller quantum computers can be used by anyone free of charge.
IBM put a small quantum computer online in 2016, and followed up with a larger one in 2017. More than 100,000 people have signed up and used the machines, conducting 6.7 million computations.
“You look at text books, even ones that were written seven or eight years ago, and people said things like: ‘If a quantum computer ever exists in my lifetime,’ things like that,” said Sutor.
“We had gotten to the point where we had built quantum computers that were stable enough that people could begin to do real computations. Just having people being able to run a real quantum computer is very tangible evidence the field is progressing.”
The progress and announcements out of IBM invite comparisons to Quantum Valley, the branding applied to this region by BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis. With his vision, leadership and philanthropy, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in quantum-related research here since 2000.
Lazaridis has donated more than $170 million to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which he founded in 2000. He donated more than $120 million to the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo. After leaving BlackBerry, he and BlackBerry co-founder Doug Fregin founded Quantum Valley Investments in 2013 with a fund of $100 million to help commercialize quantum-related breakthroughs.
Lazaridis’ donations were more than doubled by federal and provincial governments. The public and private investments total about $800 million since 2000.
Quantum computers and related technology will lead to the next industrial supercycle, Lazaridis has said, and Canada cannot afford to fall behind in the worldwide race to develop the technology.
Quantum Valley Investments paid $15 million for a former
BlackBerry building at 560 Westmount Rd. N. where the fund and several startups it supports are located
Quantum researchers in Waterloo work in areas such as quantum cryptography, quantum radar, quantum sensors, quantum materials and error correction in quantum computers. For a time, researchers at the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) had the biggest known quantum computer in the world.
After nearly 20 years of work, local quantum researcher are not willing to accept second place to IBM, even if the tech giant grabbed the spotlight with its recent announcements.
Kevin Resch, interim director of the IQC, said in an email the region is playing a leading role in quantum research. Public and private investments have attracted a critical mass of talented researchers, he said. Those researchers have trained a quantum workforce, and are building the infrastructure required to advance quantum science and technology at an international level, he said.
“IQC together with our Quantum Valley partners form a unique ecosystem that brings together academics, startup companies, incubators, and private sector investors to accelerate the commercialization of quantum technology,” said Resch.
“The Quantum Valley approach is work- ing as we witness the growth of new quantum industry in Waterloo Region,” he said.
University of Waterloo spokesperson Matthew Grant said comparisons between Quantum Valley and IBM are difficult because their research priorities are different.
At the Institute for Quantum Computing there is a fabrication lab where quantum computer chips, materials and sensors are made. IQC businesses partners can access the lab and what’s made there to gain a quantum advantage in their work. IQC researchers helped build and launch the first quantum satellite. There are 13 startups currently working in the Quantum Valley Investments building that spun out of research at IQC.
“This is an entire ecosystem that goes from fundamental research to experimentation to commercialization to training,” said Grant. “It has been described to me as a unique ecosystem in the world.”
Since it was founded, IQC has trained more than 1,500 people to work in this emerging sector, and researchers there have developed a quantum sensor that is so sensitive it can detect a single cancerous cell, said Grant.
“We have a lot of partnerships with businesses that can come in here and access equipment that they would never be able to access anywhere else.”
IBM’s Q quantum computation centre in Poughkeepsie N.Y., above, has been opened to commercial partners. Waterloo’s Quantum Valley is doing important work and is a major player. too. IBM might be in the lead overall, but locally, differing and important work is done, Waterloo experts say.