Intel always likes to reveal details of the bleeding edge stuff it works on and we’re now seeing the glimpse of some quantum computing tech that a research program embarked on back in 2015.
Quantum computing is the ultimate in parallel computing; the super future tech that will be able to handle the kind of computations that are just a pipedream today.
Although we don’t really know the full potential of quantum computing, it will be used where vast racks are required today; for example in drug development, weather forecasting and climate modelling.
Intel’s research program has one goal in mind; the development of a quantum computing system with the potential of being commercially available – even though that’s a remote possibility at the moment.
That’s because quantum computing is at a very early stage; Intel has likened it to being at “mile one in a marathon…many problems must be solved and many architectural decisions must be made.”
Two quantum methods
Architectural decisions you say? Yes, there are two different types of quantum processor and it’s not quite clear which is best and yes; this is the quantum computing equivalent of a format war. As such, Intel is investing in them equally. In that way, we guess, it isn’t quite the same as a traditional format war because one company isn’t in an entrenched position against another.
The first type is superconducting qubits, which others are also working on. During his CES 2018 keynote, Intel chief Brian Krzanich talked about the design, fabrication and delivery of a 49-qubit superconducting quantum test chip which Intel has codenamed Tangle Lake.
A “qubit” is a quantum bit (as opposed to the ‘bits’ that are the basic binary building blocks of all computing devices today).
And there are other problems. Superconducting qubits need to run at very low temperatures because they are very fragile. Obviously, that’s not that practical in the real world and the control electronics around them don’t like temperatures like that. And these systems aren’t very practically-sized currently; the system Intel has designed around the superconducting qubits is slightly bigger than an oil drum.
How spin cubits can solve the problems
The second, alternative, architecture is called “spin qubits,” which use silicon (a material Intel knows rather well, of course). These more closely resemble semiconductor transistors as we know them today and so can be made more easily.
As Intel explains, they deliver their quantum power by leveraging the spin of a single electron on a silicon device and controlling the movement with tiny, microwave pulses.
That’s because electrons can spin in different directions. When the electron spins up, the data signifies the binary value 1. When the electron spins down, the data signifies the binary value 0.
Got that? Yes, but there’s more to it. These electrons can also exist in a “superposition”. That means they can spin up and down at the same time and so process massive amounts of data in parallel.
They’re also significantly stronger than superconducting qubits. They’re also smaller - millions of qubits will be required for a commercial system. And importantly they also work at higher temperatures which Intel is researching along with academic research partner QuTech,
Intel and QuTech are set to continue research on both superconducting and spin qubits. It's going to be fascinating to see how it goes.