Quantum computing promises to be a major step forward for the tech world. The only problem is, no one knows when that leap will happen. The technology behind quantum computers is still limited to labs and researchers with no signs of realistic volume production from any of the major firms working on it.
While others explore absolute zero chambers and ion traps, Intel hopes a more traditional approach will prove victorious in the end. Its Tunnel Falls quantum chip, featuring spin qubits and electrons housed in silicon, has already turned heads. The U.S.-based chipmaker aims to leverage its expertise in semiconductor manufacturing to come out ahead in the quantum computing race.
There’s more than one way to make a quantum computer. The world’s largest tech firms, including IBM and Google, are hard at work to find the best solution. But there’s no clear frontrunner—or any reason to believe only one of the proposed methods will be the winner.
Intel’s approach is perhaps the least far-flung of them all. In a recent speech, CEO Pat Gelsinger said, “We’re the only company working on silicon qubits, using the same process and materials we’re already using, tweaking them a little bit to create leading-edge qubits. If we get this working, we can do this at scale.”
Qubits are the core of quantum computing. They can store data in the form of ones and zeros, but unlike binary, they can also exist in between states. When multiple qubits become entangled, they allow for dramatic acceleration of complex computing projects. But on their own, qubits are easily disrupted by outside forces—like temperature, pressure, and magnetic fields.
To solve this problem, researchers group multiple qubits together to make a single error-corrected qubit. This can then carry out computing tasks with greater efficiency while also being more stable. The only issue is that error-corrected qubits mean a quantum computer needs even more qubits to function.
Unlike some researchers, Intel is focused on the quality of its qubits rather than quantity alone. Its Tunnel Falls quantum chip contains just 12 qubits. Other firms have vastly overshadowed this number with machines containing dozens and dozens of qubits. But Intel isn’t worried.
In a statement, Intel Labs director Rich Uhlig said, “We are working on another one [quantum processor]. I won’t say how many [qubits]. For us, it’s less about the number and more about the quality.”
Intel is focused on improving quality by making its qubits more reliable and increasing their interconnectivity. The second-gen Horse Ridge processor is a key piece of this strategy. It introduces several control elements to boost the stability of the qubits while they crunch data. Intel’s next quantum chip could leverage these benefits to leapfrog offerings from its competitors.
It’s no secret that the world is excited about quantum computing. The technology has the potential to revolutionize many industries. Quantum applications range from improving batteries to analyzing proteins for new drugs to cracking today’s toughest encryption method with ease.
Competition in the industry has increased rapidly over the past few years as startups and investors look to get in on the ground floor. While the more extreme approaches to quantum computing might grab headlines, Intel’s no-frills tactic could give it an edge.
CCS Insight analyst James Sanders is among those who believe Intel’s technology is promising. He said, “The idea of Intel trying to leverage decades of experience in manufacturing to build a qubit around silicon will inevitably work.”
Whether or not Intel’s technology proves to be the best (or is feasible at all) remains to be seen. However, the chipmaker has repeatedly proven its ability to rely on its strengths and churn out impressive products—even if its designs aren’t the most exciting. Tunnel Falls and its eventual successor promise to be important players in the quantum computing space as the race for the best solution heats up. Perhaps silicon will be the answer to quantum computing after all.