In the race to build commercially useful quantum computers, Honeywell just took a big leap forward.
The industrial conglomerate unveiled on Thursday what it is calling, by one measure, at least, the “world’s highest performing quantum computer,” a type of experimental computer that could be a successor to today’s supercomputers. The company’s boast rests on the computer achieving a high score on what’s known as quantum volume, an invented metric that helps characterize the performance of a quantum computer.
Honeywell’s new machine has a quantum volume of 64, making it “twice as powerful as the next alternative in the industry,” the company said. Earlier in the year, IBM, one of Honeywell’s major competitors in the quantum computing race, declared it had built a quantum computer with a quantum volume of 32.
“It absolutely is the highest performing quantum computer in the world,” said Tony Uttley, Honeywell’s quantum leader, in an interview with Fortune. Uttley said his team was able to continue working toward the goal, despite the unforeseen disruptions of the global coronavirus pandemic.
“When everything started shutting down and we started saying at home, I thought we were gonna be in a tough spot,” Uttley said. Nevertheless, the team was able to pull through thanks to a combination of remote work and reduced staffing at its two labs, one just outside of Boulder, Colo., and another in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.
IBM proposed quantum volume as an alternative way to assess quantum machines’ computing power in 2017. It was an attempt to shift the industry away from clunkier measures.
Before quantum volume, companies often liked to tout the number of so-called qubits—or quantum bits, the quantum equivalent of classical bits—their machines possessed, regardless of quality. The quantum volume figure, instead, factors in a number of other important attributes, including the stability of a given system, its proneness to error, and the ease of programming.
Unlike classical binary digits—the “1” and “0,” which form the basis of traditional computing—qubits can exist in multiple states (a property called superposition) and can become tied together (entanglement). These properties, unique to particle-scale physics, give quantum computers access to potentially greater processing power.
Some companies have set their sights on different goals. In the fall, Google claimed to have achieved “quantum supremacy,” a major milestone in which a quantum computer vastly outperforms a traditional machine on a mostly useless calculation. IBM later disputed the claim, arguing that the Google team underestimated IBM’s Summit supercomputer.
Other companies working on quantum computers include Intel, Microsoft, and startups Rigetti and IonQ.
Not everyone is convinced of quantum volume’s utility. On his popular science blog, Scott Aaronson, a respected quantum computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, remarked in March that Honeywell’s target metric could be considered “a clear step in the right direction,” but should not overshadow a computer’s full set of specifications.
“This is nowhere near quantum supremacy (i.e., beating classical computers at some well-defined task), which is a necessary though not sufficient condition for doing anything useful,” Aaronson wrote.
Scientists and businesspeople hope quantum computers will one day be able to solve seemingly intractable mathematical problems. These range from enhanced modeling of chemical reactions, which could help people discover new drugs or develop more environmentally friendly fuels, to making machine learning techniques more efficient, among other benefits.
Honeywell said customers of Microsoft’s cloud computing unit, Azure, would gain access to its quantum computer through a partnership the two companies struck. Those customers can run operations on the quantum computer remotely, without having to own and maintain the machine.
In May, Marco Pistoia, managing director and research lead for a JPMorgan Chase R&D lab, expressed enthusiasm in an email about the bank’s work with Honeywell, which includes credit risk simulations and improved fraud detection. “We are excited to work on such a powerful machine and collaborate with the quantum information theory team at Honeywell,” he said.
Steve Tomasco, an IBM spokesperson, said the company plans to debut a computer with a quantum volume of 64 later this year. “It’s exciting to see the wider quantum computing community embrace quantum volume metric,” he said.
Honeywell, meanwhile, said it expects to boost its quantum computing power by a factor of 10 each year for the next five years.
More must-read tech coverage from Fortune:
- A new coating could protect ATMs from spreading diseases like COVID-19. But will it work?
- George Floyd protests, coronavirus face masks pose challenges for facial recognition
- Eliminating social media’s legal protection would end Facebook and Twitter “as we know it,” legal experts say
- Can Nikola Motor’s big battery promises be true?
- Big investors like Bitcoin for the wrong reason