Intel has built a quantum processor called Tunnel Falls that it will offer to research labs hoping to make groundbreaking computer technology practical.
The Tunnel Falls processor, announced Thursday, houses 12 building blocks for data processing called qubits. It’s an important step in the chipmaker’s bid to develop quantum computing hardware it hopes will outpace rivals.
Intel, unlike most of its rivals, makes its qubits from single electrons housed in computer chips that are cousins of the ones that power millions of PCs. The company is late. Rivals like IBM, Google, Quantinuum and IonQ have been offering quantum computers for years, but Intel believes tying its fortunes to conventional chip technology will eventually allow for faster progress.
“For me, it’s natural to use the tools I’ve already developed rather than having to develop new tools,” said Jim Clarke, director of quantum computing hardware at Intel Labs. Intel makes its own quantum computing chips at its D1 factory in Oregon.
You won’t buy your quantum computer, but they could affect your life in a very direct way. Among those investing in the technology are financial services firms seeking more lucrative investments, materials science researchers hoping for better batteries, pharmaceutical companies seeking to design better drugs, and governments seeking to crack opponents’ encrypted communications.
These challenges are beyond the reach of conventional computers, but quantum computing has the potential to address them by exploiting the strange physics of the ultrasmall. Today’s quantum computers aren’t generally practical, and the full promise of the technology remains years away, but physicists and engineers have been making steady progress year after year.
Intel, experts in large-scale manufacturing, hopes to help speed things up by building lots of quantum chips, which it calls quantum processing units, or QPUs. The University of Maryland, one of the centers benefiting from a US government program to accelerate the progress of quantum computing, will use Intel machines.
The race for quantum computing
A notable feature of quantum computing is the huge variety of approaches. Intel uses electrons, storing data with a quantum mechanical property called spin that is analogous to the two directions a top can spin. IBM and Google use small electrical circuits of superconducting materials. IonQ and Quantinuum manipulate charged atoms stored in a trap. Other approaches involve neutral atoms and even the most fleeting of particles, the photon.
On a small enough scale, quantum mechanics dominates physics, and anything can become a qubit, quantum computing pioneer and MIT researcher Seth Lloyd said in a previous interview. “It’s a question of whether you can massage them in the right way to get them to calculate.”
In other words, quantum computing is not a horse race like in the traditional computer chip market. It’s more like a horse versus a hawk, a motorcycle, and an Olympic sprinter.
Intel likes his approach. Tunnel Falls is in production today, but the company will soon “born” its successor, which means the design is finished, and after that it has started designing the model, Clarke said. Twelve qubits are a tiny fraction of what’s needed for useful quantum computers, but Intel started with a simple approach designed for rapid improvement and sustained progress over the years it takes to make serious quantum computers.
“The next big milestone is when we have a few thousand qubits,” an amount that will allow quantum computer engineers to correct the frequent errors that plague qubit operations, Clarke said. “Probably three, four years, maybe five years away,” Clarke said. “And it’s probably early 2030 or mid 2030 before we have a million cubits that will change the world.”
Intel is designing not only the QPUs, but also the crucial data links that connect each qubit to the outside world. Today’s quantum computers often look like high-tech chandeliers, with gleaming metal communication conduits cascading down to the processor, but that bulky design won’t work with thousands or millions of qubits. Intel believes its control chips and chip interconnect technology will be necessary parts of a global system.
Lots of competitors
One of Intel’s biggest rivals, IBM, already offers multiple 127-qubit quantum computers for research and commercial use, with one 433-qubit machine up and running.
“We have a plan to get to hundreds of thousands of qubits using superconducting qubits,” said Jerry Chow, leader of IBM’s quantum computing hardware effort. IBM is working on quantum computer chips with a multitude of codenames — Egret, Heron, Condor, Crossbill — that are designed to try out new technologies to reduce errors and improve the qubit-qubit connections that are critical to machines.
And it’s making progress. On Wednesday, it secured a coveted spot on the cover of the journal Nature for research showing its 127-qubit Eagle quantum computing chip can outperform conventional machines in simulating the physics of materials that produce effects like magnetism.
Intel has tried and rejected the qubit approach to supercomputing, Clarke said. Its spin qubits are a million times smaller than a superconducting circuit, allowing the company to fit 25,000 of them onto every 300mm silicon wafer that passes through its chip fabrication plant, called a fab. When Intel finds a problem building quantum chips, it figures out how to adapt the qubit for traditional chip manufacturing, not the other way around.
Disagree with Intel’s approach
Such arguments did not convince others. Google sticks to superconducting qubits.
“Superconducting qubits are leaders in critical metrics. We are confident they are the leading technology for the future of quantum supercomputers,” Google said in a statement, pointing to their processing speed and progress toward error correction to keep calculations in line. track longer. “We see a clear path to adapting our technology to large-scale, error-correcting general-purpose machines.”
And IonQ CEO Peter Chapman believes Intel’s approach is too rigid for large-scale, practical quantum computers. His company is developing ion trap machines that move charged atoms around, allowing different qubits to interact with each other for computation. Pinning qubits to the surface of a chip dramatically complicates calculations, he said.
“What worked in computing in the past — silicon-based processors — is not the right fit for the quantum age,” Chapman said.
Deep-seated disagreements about the best approach will perhaps be resolved as machines evolve and get bigger. Intel’s plans build on its manufacturing edge, drawing on its experience building some of the most complicated electronic devices on the planet.
“Not everyone has a fab like this in their back pocket,” Clarke said.
Correction, 9:33am PT: This story misreported the particles Intel makes qubits from. Use electrons.
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