Chip-sized ion traps are key components in IonQ’s quantum computers. (IonQ Photo / Kai Hudek)

Maryland-based IonQ is expanding the commercial availability of its next-generation Forte quantum computer — and ramping up its research and production facility in the Seattle area to work on the next, next generation.

Forte is expected to bring the quantum frontier closer to the point that customers can start running real-world applications rather than merely experimenting with quantum capabilities, said Chris Monroe, co-founder and chief scientist at IonQ.

“We’re not talking a decade away here anymore,” he told GeekWire.

Quantum computing is markedly different from the classical one-or-zero approach to processing data. Quantum bits, or qubits, can represent multiple states of information simultaneously until the results of a computation are read out. That makes the technology especially well-suited for particular types of problems, such as system optimization.

IonQ measures the performance of its computers in terms of what it calls algorithmic qubits, or #AQ, which takes into account the error correction methods required to get reliable results. Earlier generations of its quantum hardware — Harmony and Aria — brought the standard up to #AQ 25. Forte boosts that figure to #AQ 29, with room for future improvements.

Last year, IonQ made Forte hardware available to some pilot customers, including Hyundai, Airbus and Los Alamos National Laboratory — and Monroe said the way they’ve put that hardware to use has been instructive.

Hyundai, for example, is using quantum computing to figure out how to manufacture better batteries, by tweaking the structure of lithium-based molecules. The company is also incorporating quantum-based algorithms into its object-recognition software for autonomous vehicle development.

“That collaboration is going super-strong,” Monroe said.

Airbus is using Forte to address a seemingly mundane problem: how to optimize the loading and placement of air cargo. “This is a variation of something called the ‘knapsack problem,’” Monroe said. “It’s a very well-known optimization problem, and there’s a way to run this on a quantum computer. We ran that on 28 qubits in the Forte system, and those results are really promising.”

Los Alamos is doing highly technical research with Forte’s help. “Los Alamos National Laboratory is using IonQ Forte as part of quantum discovery, which we anticipate will enable more discovery techniques and algorithms,” Stephan Eidenbenz, a senior quantum computing researcher at Los Alamos, said in a news release.

Some companies, such as Google and IBM, use superconducting circuits in their quantum hardware. IonQ is using a different approach, with trapped ions serving as the basis for its qubits. IonQ’s current lineup of computing hardware uses ytterbium ions — but the company is planning to switch to barium ions, which is expected to unlock more computational capability.

Moving ahead in Bothell

The 65,000-square-foot research and production facility that IonQ is ramping up in Bothell, Wash., is likely to play a key role in boosting Forte’s computing power and opening the way for future generations of barium-based hardware.

“It’s not all finalized exactly what’s coming out of there,” Monroe said of the new facility. “But Bothell is meant to be the staple of our production facility. It’s more than just prototyping systems, but actually producing several copies of the same system. … We haven’t yet built many copies of a given system.”

Monroe said the Bothell operation currently has 30 to 40 employees, which is a significant proportion of IonQ’s total workforce of about 250. And the Bothell team is expanding quickly.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure just to get the line going,” he said. “A year ago, we were in a position where we needed to produce in three years. So the timing is, from now it’ll be a year to a year and a half where things will start to come off the line.”

IonQ has said the Bothell facility is part of the company’s plan to invest $1 billion in the Pacific Northwest and create thousands of jobs in the region over the next 10 years — an initiative that takes advantage of Seattle’s tech talent pool.

Moving ahead in Basel

There’s already a demand for more powerful quantum computers. Today IonQ announced that it will partner with a Swiss technology hub called QuantumBasel to stand up a European quantum data center.

The transaction calls for IonQ to deliver two quantum computing systems to the Center for Competence for Quantum & AI QuantumBasel. The first computer will have to meet IonQ’s #AQ 35 standard, and the second computer should be capable of #AQ 64 computation.

IonQ’s CEO and president, Peter Chapman, said the partnership is “a historic deal for IonQ and the quantum industry.”

“At #AQ 35, we expect the first system we deliver to QuantumBasel to be on the verge of exceeding the capabilities of quantum simulators on classical computers,” he said in a news release. “With #AQ 64, we believe even the best supercomputers will no longer be able to compete using full quantum simulation.”

IonQ says an #AQ 64 device should be capable of considering more than 18 quintillion different possibilities simultaneously. That’s an 18 followed by 18 zeroes.

The partnership also calls for IonQ to establish a quantum innovation center for Europe, the Middle East and Africa on the uptownBasel campus, near Switzerland’s borders with France and Germany.

“Bringing IonQ systems on-site will expedite and improve our pursuit of quantum innovation, furthering our goal of achieving breakthroughs,” said Thomas Staehelin, investor and president of the board of uptownBasel.

“For example, biopharma is a key focus area for quantum computing,” Staehelin said. “Partnering with IonQ puts us one step closer to enhancing the drug discovery process and running complex in silico simulations, ultimately expanding access to necessary treatments for diseases that are incurable today.”

IonQ’s scientists and engineers in Bothell may well play a central role in meeting the goals envisioned in Basel.

“What we’re learning as we build larger and larger qubit systems is that the errors we have to deal with are highly structured, and it’s very specific to the application you’re running,” Monroe said.

“To get to #AQ 64, I hate to say that you have to build it and see. But we have to branch out, and we have many opportunities to get to #AQ 64,” he said. “The important thing about #AQ 64 is that this is way beyond what any classical computer would be able to even simulate. So this is going to be exciting.”

Previously: Could the Pacific Northwest foster a ‘Quantum Valley’?

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