In a Significant Quantum Leap, the Chip Manufacturer Makes a Move in the Race for Quantum Supremacy

Despite being seen by some as a quantum computing underdog, Intel took advantage of the CES stage yesterday to show off  “Tangle Lake,” an impressive 49-qubit quantum chip. The chip is named after a chain of lakes in Alaska, a reference to the extreme temperatures it requires to function. Tangle Lake comes to us just a few short months after Intel unveiled a 17-qubit superconducting test chip.

Why should you care? Per Intel:

Achieving a 49-qubit test chip is an important milestone because it will allow researchers to assess and improve error correction techniques and simulate computational problems.

Per me, this is an important milestone on the road to demonstrating quantum advantage. Also the pace at which they are releasing these chips is noteworthy.

I Have to Have a Million Qubits?  Or More? What?!?

Speaking of error correction and signal to noise, I have to disagree with Mike Mayberry, Corporate Vice President and Managing Director of Intel Labs, who said of the announement:

We expect it will be five to seven years before the industry gets to tackling engineering-scale problems, and it will likely require 1 million or more qubits to achieve commercial relevance.

I’m not sure the rest of the industry got that message. IBM, Google, and Microsoft are all pushing for things to happen faster than that timeline. Also, one million qubits seems arbitrary. Why do we need a million qubits for a quantum computer to become commercially relevant? What makes him certain? The competition seems to believe there is some commercial relevance now. IBM has already offered a 20-qubit machine to key customers.

I posit that the ability to apply quantum computing to solve some existing, relevant problem is what will determine commercial relevance.  Whether 20 qubits or 20 million. Applications, specifically quantum computing applications, are more important than the number of qubits. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he thinks a million qubits or more will be required to achieve the level of error correction required to reliably execute such an application.

The Future is Wide Open

I did agree with Mr. Mayberry when he said:

In the quest to deliver a commercially viable quantum computing system, it’s anyone’s game.

Yes. If Intel’s position is to project the commercial relevance of quantum computing five to seven years out, and that you need a million qubits to be viable, then you are correct, sir. It’s anyone’s game. Well, anyone’s but Intel’s.

Quantum computing is coming. It will change everything. And it will happen faster than anyone is expecting.