At Intel, quantum computing is cool again
In the middle of Washington County, Intel Corp. is working to break the binary.
The theory behind quantum computing is that, freed from the limits of binary bits, it can use quantum bits (qubits) to perform massive amounts of calculations in parallel. Qubits don't have to be ones or zeros — they can be in states in between. The ability to be in multiple states simultaneously allows for many more combinations, which, in turn, carries more information.
One of Intel's computing competitors, Google, claimed last month that through benchmark testing, it had achieved "quantum supremacy," which showed its quantum computer chip was faster than a "classical" computer. Google ran an analysis in 200 seconds on a small quantum processor that would take the most powerful supercomputer approximately 10,000 years to perform.
That speed and power have commercial entities thinking that quantum computing would be great for functions like modeling economic trendlines or creating new drugs.
Jim Clarke, director of quantum hardware at Intel, showed off the facility at Ronler Acres, next to the gigantic D1X semiconductor fabrication plant, where Intel is working on its own quantum computer chip. It looks kind of like a cross between NASA and a Hollywood studio, with staff buzzing around in golf carts and carpenters coming and going.
Clarke used the metaphor of qubits as spinning coins — neither heads nor tails, neither ones nor zeroes, but possibly either — in his pitch to Intel's executive committee in 2014. It worked.
"We're trying to make a quantum analog of a transistor, that for certain applications would be exponentially faster than a classical computer that you might have or I might have today," he explained.
Calculating in the cold
So what's the catch? The answer can be found in, as Clarke calls it, "the coldest place in Oregon." It's a room with three refrigerators, shaped like water heaters, in which they test their quantum chips. These chips only operate at extremely low temperatures — in this case, 10 millikelvins, or about 1/100th of a degree above absolute zero.
The sounds in the room are of hisses and clanks from the pumps that cool the fridges. The coolant is a mixture of helium-4 and helium-3, the latter isotope being a byproduct of nuclear reactors.
Wires run from the fridges to what looks like a rack of servers.
A Finnish company called Bluefors makes the fridges. They take a weekend to cool down. Inside the onion layers of steel casing, Clarke said, there is a device that looks like a chandelier, feeding coolant downward to the coldest part, the bottom, where the chip sits.
"A tiny bit of light, if it were to get into one of our refrigerators, would warm things up to the point that we would lose all of our information," Clarke said. "So, this is very different than a conventional computer."
The coolant room is monitored from a separate space full of computers and screens.
It's easy to check on the fridges, like a guard scanning a mall's security camera outputs. Clarke drops by the monitoring room frequently and sometimes enters the room where the fridges are humming and clanking away.
Sister to the transistor
Observing a quantum particle, or a qubit, however, is more complicated. Quantum computers are hard to produce because the qubits are so fragile. They fail due to excess "noise" — electronic, temperature, vibration, even radiation.
At Intel, they use just one electron in the circuit, and the only way to observe it is to place another electron nearby and see how that electron behaves.
To complicate things further, Clarke said, "Right now, there are probably between eight and 10 different types of cubits or quantum computers. We're actually one of the few that's actually studying this type."
Transistors — those on-off switches that are the building blocks of electronics — are Intel's bread and butter.
"What we do is, we modify this transistor slightly so that we actually trap a single electron in the device," Clarke said. "And that electron can either have one of two spins: spin up, spin down."
Intel picked this path because it resembles its usual business, Clarke said. Others have gone their own way. Other ways of making qubits include lasers and superconductors.
"Google, IBM and others, they're doing superconducting qubits," Clarke said. "Intel is doing these qubits that look like transistors. The primary reason is we have tens of billions of dollars of equipment dedicated to transistors (at Ronler Acres). Intel ships 400 quadrillion transistors a year. So, if we can build a quantum technology that's built on the core fundamentals of transistors, we think we're going to lead in this technology."
While these Intel chips are different from transistors, they use the same silicon as a regular chip.
One way they have the edge over Google's chips? Scale.
"Each superconducting qubit is a million times larger than one of the spin qubits that we're making," Clarke said. "Therefore, it's relatively easy to make one of these with a less advanced fabrication facility. And many of these companies are starting to build small fabrication facilities."
Intel can build the quantum chips in the same facility where it develops its regular transistor-based processors, and Clarke expects Intel will be able to scale up production faster than the competition.
He pointed out that Intel also is known for its semiconductor fabrication plant, and for its architecture, the bed on which the chip sits.
"We can tap into that network," Clarke said.
How close is a usable quantum computer to being ready?
"We absolutely have a goal to build a complete system," Clarke said. "We're working on the quantum processor, the control electronics, the architecture and the algorithm. We are focused on the long term, which is building a quantum computer that's going to change your life or mine."
But if those Finnish freezers are any indication, the technology still has a ways to go. What they see now are just test systems, with no practical purpose. A quantum computer that doesn't need to be on life support, as it were, in a lab, could be years away.
"It's not going to be enough to build just a quantum processor," Clarke said. "We're going to have to build the infrastructure. So, to build a system that's going to change your life, I am still thinking about 10 years away."
He pointed out that big changes in electronics come roughly every 12 years, and quantum computing looks like it could be the next big thing.
"At first, I would expect just a few systems used by the government, (the Department of Energy's) National Labs, large banks and hospitals," Clarke said. "But as the application space grows, I would expect that to proliferate to far more."
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