Quantum research has become a global effort, with the United States leading and China close behind. In Europe, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden are making sizable investments in quantum research. The European High-Performance Computing Joint Undertaking (EuroHPC JU) has also announced hosting agreements for six new European quantum computers in Italy, Poland, Spain, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.
Switzerland, renowned for centuries of scientific innovation, has lagged behind other European countries in quantum research. But it should make its mark once the groundbreaking quantum partnership between IonQ and QuantumBasel has been implemented. The Center of Competence for Quantum and Artificial Intelligence, known as QuantumBasel, is Switzerland’s first quantum hub. It is situated on the uptownBasel campus, an innovation and international competence center for Industry 4.0.
The agreement calls for IonQ and QuantumBasel to jointly establish and manage a European quantum data center. The arrangement also includes installing two advanced IonQ quantum computers at QuantumBasel. One of the quantum machines will be capable of using 35 algorithmic qubits, to be followed by a later system capable of using 64 algorithmic qubits.
The project has received $500 million in private funding from the family of Dr. Thomas Staehelin and Monique Staehelin. QuantumBasel’s goal is to become an incubator for innovation and technology transfer. The 70,000-square-meter site includes plans for nine buildings that will house 50 companies. QuantumBasel also has agreements for remote cloud access to other quantum computers. Workshops, training sessions and access to the quantum systems will be available to the public and researchers.
Damir Bogdan is the CEO of QuantumBasel. Bogdan serves on boards of directors in the healthcare, high-tech and industrial sectors, and is a senior adviser for the Institute of Information Management at the University of St. Gallen.
“We aim to democratize quantum computing and make the technology easy to access,” Bogdan said. “We want to act as a neutral hub because we are not a tech vendor in the same manner as quantum computing companies. We try to understand the customer’s problem and explain what a quantum computer can and can’t do. Once we evaluate a customer’s problem, we hold an internal meeting to decide which technology best solves it. We ask ourselves is it a superconducting problem, or an annealing problem or now, an IonQ trapped-ion type of problem? It also could be a hybrid problem or a classical problem. After our internal evaluation, then we propose what we believe is the appropriate technology for the customer.”
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In the partnership with QuantumBasel, IonQ agreed to install two trapped-ion quantum computers on the campus of uptownBasel. Neither the 35-algorithmic-qubit machine nor the 64-algorithmic-qubit processor are available as yet. Both machines are still under development. IonQ’s larger trapped-ion systems have the potential to help revolutionize industries such as logistics, finance, pharma, chemistry and AI.
Basel is home to major pharmaceutical and chemicals companies such as Novartis, Roche, Bayer, BASF and Moderna. I asked Bogdan if local pharmaceutical companies were involved with QuantumBasel.
“When we first thought about bringing quantum computing to the campus of uptownBasel, we also discussed the idea with pharmaceutical makers,” he said. “Some have in-house quantum programs, so they understand quantum and its capabilities but don’t have access to the technology. We still maintain close interaction with them and hold regular workshops. Pharmaceuticals are important to our long-term success.”
Bogdan paused, then said, “To circle back and answer your original question directly, we don’t have a pharmaceutical project—no, not yet, but we are working hard, and it will take some time.”
QuantumBasel may have recently gained a significant advantage in its pursuit of pharmaceuticals. At the end of 2022, the U.S. government passed the FDA Modernization Act 2.0, which authorizes sponsors of novel drugs to use computer models as an alternative to live animal testing. That puts quantum computing in a much more favorable position.
IonQ’s quantum deliverables
IonQ measures the efficiency and power of its quantum processors using a metric called algorithmic qubits (AQ). (I analyzed the company’s approach to AQ in detail in this recent article.) Simply put, AQ represents a quantum computer’s maximum number of useful qubits that can be employed for a typical quantum program. The more AQ available for an algorithm, the greater the computing power. A good example is the IonQ Forte quantum computer. It is equipped with 32 qubits total but has only 29 AQ because three of its qubits can’t be statistically relied on to be accurate due to poor fidelity, errors or other reasons.
In 2024, QuantumBasel will receive its first IonQ trapped-ion computer, capable of providing solutions with an impressive 35 AQ. This level of computing power will be difficult, but not impossible, for classical computers to simulate.
A few years later, IonQ will replace the first machine with a second, more powerful quantum computer capable of using 64 algorithmic qubits. IonQ estimates that machine will be so powerful that classical supercomputers will struggle to simulate it.
With each additional qubit, the computational power of a quantum algorithm doubles. This exponential nature of quantum gives these computers an edge over classical computers, which achieve only a linear power factor of one for each additional bit. Because of runtime and memory limitations, classical machines can’t match quantum’s computational state space, meaning that they hit a wall and can’t simulate qubit counts any further.
A quantum computer with 35 algorithmic qubits (that is, 235) can consider more than 34 billion possibilities at the same time. By comparison, a 64-algorithmic-qubit machine can simultaneously consider more than 264, or 18 quintillion, possibilities.
The evolution of IonQ quantum computers
Let’s take a look at quantum computers currently available from IonQ. The first commercial quantum computer released by the company was Harmony. It can be reconfigured in software to use up to 11 qubits and has an AQ of 9. Despite its small size, it’s an excellent machine with an efficient backend for small-scale proof-of-concept work and is compatible with most quantum SDKs. Many quantum-related research projects have used this machine.
The next computer released was the IonQ Aria, a fifth-generation quantum machine. The Aria has an AQ of 25 and higher gate fidelities than the Harmony. Its 25 AQ also means less noise in the quantum system. With less noise, problems require fewer iterations, which saves time and money.
IonQ Forte is IonQ’s newest quantum computer. It has better precision and higher performance than previous models. Its acousto-optic deflectors (AODs) allow it to aim laser beams more accurately. The processor has 32 qubits; earlier this year, IonQ announced that it had achieved its 2023 technical goal of demonstrating 29 AQ on IonQ Forte seven months earlier than expected. That also puts it on track to complete the development of the AQ 35 earlier than expected. Like Aria, Forte is further expandable in software. IonQ recently launched Forte for commercial use with customers including Airbus, Hyundai and Los Alamos National Lab.
The first time I talked to Peter Chapman was in 2020. At that time, IonQ had a commercial machine in service, plus its next three generations of quantum computers were simultaneously under development. Working on multiple generations seems to be part of IonQ’s culture, so it it’s likely that many details of the company’s AQ 64 machine are already in place.
During our most recent discussion, Chapman seemed energized about developing a quantum computer with 64 algorithmic qubits. “I feel that we’re finally at the place that everyone has been talking about for the past five years,” he said. “Interest in the AQ 64 systems has been really high because it will no longer be possible to classically simulate it with a supercomputer. That is mind-boggling. Plus, following the AQ 64, the 128 is next, and then the 256. These are historic numbers. Maybe 20 years from now, our kids’ kids will be able to read about it in the history of quantum computing. So from that standpoint, I think it is a big deal.”
He’s correct. Reaching 64 algorithmic qubits is a big deal.
IonQ financial snapshot
The agreement with QuantumBasel is worth $28 million to IonQ. The deal increased IonQ’s 2023 bookings expectations by 25%, for a range between $45 million to $55 million. Since IonQ won’t deliver the first AQ 35 system to QuantumBasel until 2024, the deal won’t affect IonQ’s revenue expectations for 2023.
It is important to recognize that IonQ’s cash, cash equivalents and investments on hand total $525.5 million as of March 31, 2023. That means IonQ still has enough funds to reach its long-term roadmap goals.
One critical question is how difficult it will be for IonQ to meet its commitment to develop a machine with AQ 35 on time. And what about the AQ 64?
Before answering that, here’s a bit of background. As I mentioned above, I first met Chapman in May 2020. He had been CEO for twelve months. At the time, the fourth generation IonQ quantum processor was publicly available, But I was surprised to discover that his researchers were already working on the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-generation machines in parallel.
I have no idea how many generations are being worked on now. But I suspect that IonQ already has customers running tests on the 35 AQ machine. Much more work is likely needed on the AQ 64 machine—more hardware development plus changes up and down the stack. This will take some physics work but mainly engineering development. And there are always error-mitigation and error-correction issues to be considered.
However, given Chapman’s history, I’m confident that both machines will be available far before they’re needed, for QuantumBasel or anyone else.