Quantum Upstart: IonQ Sets Sights on Challenging IBM, Rigetti, Others

By John Russell

June 5, 2019

Until now most of the buzz around quantum computing has been generated by folks already in the computer business – systems makers, chip makers, and big cloud providers. Their efforts have been dominated by semiconductor-based, superconducting approaches. The old saw “to a hammer all else looks like a nail” seems to fit here.

Now, a two-year-old start-up – IonQ – that’s pioneering trapped ion technology for quantum computing is jumping into the fray with some brash claims. IonQ reports there’s there’s less overhead required for error correction with its system, that entangling large numbers of qubits is much easier, and that the base technology is mundane, less costly, and compact. No exotic dilution refrigerators here. Indeed much of the approach is derived from decades old atomic clock technology.

Traction for trapped ion technology in the QC world is fairly recent. It was just a year ago NSF initiated a trapped ion quantum computing (STAQ) project. Late last month IonQ installed a new president and CEO, Peter Chapman, whose job is to accelerate commercial success; accomplishing that has eluded everyone in the commercial quantum space so far as the machines and needed ecosystem (tools, developers, breadth of quantum algorithms, etc.) remain in developmental stages. IonQ’s founding president and CEO, Christopher Monroe, is stepping into the chief scientist role, and indeed he is a pioneer in trapped ion technology and one of the authors of an influential 2016 paper[i]on the technology.

Earlier this week Chapman and Stewart Allen, the company COO, briefed HPCwire on IonQ’s technology and roll-out plans. Interestingly much of the conversation focused on hammering home their view that trapped ion technology is set to zoom past the semiconductor-based, superconducting approaches practiced by IBM, Google, and Rigetti Computing.

Based in College Park, MD, not far from the University of Maryland where Monroe did much of his work, IonQ has built three 11-qubit systems. Access to those machines is still “private and in beta stages” with broader access via the web coming, perhaps later this year. Notably, New Enterprise Associates, GV (formerly Google Ventures) and AWS are all investors. In fact, Chapman was director of engineering at Amazon Prime before joining Ion.

One big problem with quantum computers today is that they are noisy. Qubits, by and large, are delicate things that fall apart when disturbed by virtually anything (heat, vibration, stray electromagnetic influence, etc.). Building systems to eliminate those noises is an ongoing challenge, particularly for systems based on semiconductor-based, superconducting qubits. These noisy systems require daunting error correction approaches that have so far largely proved impractical. A second thorny problem is figuring out how to controllably entangle large numbers of qubits. Don’t forget that it is entanglement that gives quantum computing its real power.

Photo of IonQ’s ion trap chip with image of ions superimposed over it. Source: IonQ

Chapman argued trapped ion technology is vastly superior in handing these issues than semiconductor-based superconducting approaches. We haven’t heard as much about it, he says, because trapped ion technology grew up in a quieter community unlike the boisterous, jostling world of computer technology suppliers. With the fundamental work now completed, he argues trapped ion technology and IonQ in particular will quickly move to the forefront of quantum computing.

Here’s roughly how the trapped ion approach works: (Apologies for error; Monroe’s 2016 paper is actually terrific and an accessible reference.)

Ionized molecules with appropriate valence structure are used as the qubit registers. IonQ uses Ybions. A key strength here is the ions are essentially identical and reliable in their behavior. Outer electrons can be readily pumped into higher energy level and have a relatively long time before collapse. Depending on its state, the molecule represents a zero or a one. It is straightforward to generate and insert these ions into the ion trap, a “magnetic bottle” if you will, and hold them steady. Chapman use a mag-lev chip analogy with the molecules suspended above the chip.

Interacting with these molecules (the qubit registers) is done using external lasers which ‘perform’ gate operations by putting molecules into a given state; likewise the lasers can be coordinated to interact with one or many qubits and induce entanglement. Unlike for semiconductor-based superconducting quantum computers which require, among other things, exotic deep refrigeration, ion trap systems are cheap and easier to build and operate.

Said Allen, “For the cost of a dilution refrigerator alone, not even given the parts and components and the rest of the things [required for a superconducting quantum computer], you can build an entire ion trap based system of much greater power and capability. It’s also smaller, like the volume size of a kitchen refrigerator versus room-size and you can scale up qubits without changing the physical hardware.

“The vacuum chambers are cheap. The chips are not transistor-based chips. They are just electrodes. The lasers we use are off the shelf. We have to set up some optical paths to rout the lasers and impart different waveforms onto the lasers to create the transitions in the ions for operations. None of the stuff is super exotic. They don’t require a lot of power to run. They run off wall power, they don’t need 480 volts or 220 volts.” (Shown below is a figure taken from Monroe’s 2016 paper showing roughly the trapped ion approach.)

IonQ plans to double its qubit count roughly every year. Its current architecture, according to Chapman, can support scaling full mesh connectivity to 32-qubits. That’s impressive. Given the lack of a need for error correction, long coherence times relative to gate times, he believes IonQ’s approach will enable tackling larger and more complicated algorithms and shorten the time it takes before someone achieves quantum advantage on an IonQ.

It all sounds very compelling.

One quantum watcher, Bob Sorensen, VP research and technology, Hyperion Research, offers a nuanced view: “Strictly speaking, trapped ions are a good way to go because there are some significant advantages to the scheme. Trapped ions can build on an existing set of technologies used to develop things like atomic clocks and precision measurements instruments, and they operate at room temperature. In addition, trapped ions have relatively long coherence times – the amount of time a qubit can stay in a superposition state so it can be used to do quantum operations – compared with just about every other QC modality, as well as high gate fidelity, the amount of error introduced during a QC gate operation.”

Conversely, he noted, “Trapped ion schemes need to be controlled with a complex combination of microwave and optical devices which can be problematic when it comes to scaling trapped ion quantum computers to more than a few qubits. The point here is there are distinct advantages, but also technical hurdles that cannot be ignored. Perhaps more important, to date there has not been much real demonstration of the ability to build large, controllable trapped ion devices. Theoretical advantages are one thing, demonstration of capability on real quantum applications are another.”

IonQ would likely dispute some of that and also argue that it has been steadily advancing the state of the art. In March, the company published two papers, one benchmarking its 11-qubit system demonstrating high gate fidelity. The second paper described work performed on an IonQ system to estimate ground state energy in a water molecule.

With a bit of marketing bravado, the IonQ website touts: “Our quantum cores use lasers pointed at individual atoms to perform longer, more sophisticated calculations with fewer errors than any quantum computer yet built. In 2019, leading companies will start investigating real-world problems in chemistry, medicine, finance, logistics, and more using our systems.”

At least the last portion seems a stretch. Solid developmental work is ongoing in many quantum camps but use of production-quality applications or quantum algorithms on quantum computers to solve real-world problems seems distant.

Chapman and Allen offered few details on how soon the current “private use, beta user” effort will transform into a broader offering except to say that something web-based is likely later this year. They were also chary on revealing too much about their plans for tool development or even developer community development.

“What we have in our software stack is an API that allows you to run a quantum program. We expect that most people will get to our quantum hardware via cloud providers in the future. In the future you will presumably have, instead of an EC2 instance just as an example, a quantum computer instance. Until the world gets enough experience with the quantum computers, they are probably not moving to datacenters. They will probably stay at our datacenter for awhile where we have the expertise to fix them and keep them up and running,” Chapman.

Chapman and Allen emphasize IonQ has invested heavily in the compiler and optimizer technology for turning these algorithms into runnable items on the computer. Said Allen, “In addition to the advantage of requiring substantially less overhead for error correction, the native gates allow us to do a compression of algorithms without any loss of fidelity; that allows us to run algorithms in a fewer number of steps, shorter period of time, and that mapping is something that can be hidden from the developer.”

They also cited a growing cadre of what they call Q-tips, consultants who will work with customers to help them get their algorithms and applications running.

Some of IonQ’s aggressive marketing is likely intended to make up ground in the quest for mindshare in the quantum computing community where the general clamor has grown loud. It’s also in keeping with their QC brethren’s habits where standing out from the growing crowd becomes more difficult as the din around quantum computing grows.

Sorensen said, “The main point to remember is that quantum computing research is still in a nascent stage and much more speculative then in traditional computing, where the fundamental device technology has been fixed for a while and universally adopted – silicon-based CMOS – but instead include a wide range of vastly different schemes, where each offers their own set of challenges and opportunities. Indeed, I like to posit that the fundamental QC technology that may support the QCs in the 2030s across a wide range of application may not even have yet been conceived.

“I look forward to the day when IonQ can demonstrate a significant QC-based application that not only outperforms classical counterparts but that also leads the pack in performance compared with the range of other QC modalities currently under consideration.”

Stay tuned.

[i]Co-Designing a Scalable Quantum Computer with Trapped Atomic Ions

  1. R. BrownJ. KimC. Monroe, https://arxiv.org/abs/1602.02840
Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

The Present and Future of AI: A Discussion with HPC Visionary Dr. Eng Lim Goh

November 27, 2020

As HPE’s chief technology officer for artificial intelligence, Dr. Eng Lim Goh devotes much of his time talking and consulting with enterprise customers about how AI can benefit their business operations and products. Read more…

By Todd R. Weiss

SC20 Panel – OK, You Hate Storage Tiering. What’s Next Then?

November 25, 2020

Tiering in HPC storage has a bad rep. No one likes it. It complicates things and slows I/O. At least one storage technology newcomer – VAST Data – advocates dumping the whole idea. One large-scale user, NERSC storage architect Glenn Lockwood sort of agrees. The challenge, of course, is that tiering... Read more…

By John Russell

Exscalate4CoV Runs 70 Billion-Molecule Coronavirus Simulation

November 25, 2020

The winds of the pandemic are changing – for better and for worse. Three viable vaccines now teeter on the brink of regulatory approval, which will pave the way for broad distribution by April or May. But until then, COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing across the U.S. and Europe... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Azure Scaled to Record 86,400 Cores for Molecular Dynamics

November 20, 2020

A new record for HPC scaling on the public cloud has been achieved on Microsoft Azure. Led by Dr. Jer-Ming Chia, the cloud provider partnered with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the Universi Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Gordon Bell Special Prize Goes to Massive SARS-CoV-2 Simulations

November 19, 2020

2020 has proven a harrowing year – but it has produced remarkable heroes. To that end, this year, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) introduced the Gordon Bell Special Prize for High Performance Computing-Ba Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

AWS Solution Channel

Introducing AWS ParallelCluster as an Intel Select Solution

High performance computing (HPC) system owners can spend weeks or months researching, procuring, and assembling components to build HPC clusters to run their workloads. Understanding and managing the complexities of compute, storage, networking, and software requirements can be confusing and time-consuming, slowing innovation and results. Read more…

Intel® HPC + AI Pavilion

Intel Keynote Address

Intel is the foundation of HPC – from the workstation to the cloud to the backbone of the Top500. At SC20, Intel’s Trish Damkroger, VP and GM of high performance computing, addresses the audience to show how Intel and its partners are building the future of HPC today, through hardware and software technologies that accelerate the broad deployment of advanced HPC systems. Read more…

Gordon Bell Prize Winner Breaks Ground in AI-Infused Ab Initio Simulation

November 19, 2020

The race to blend deep learning and first-principle simulation to speed up solutions and scale up problems tackled is one of the most exciting research areas in computational science today. This year’s ACM Gordon Bell Prize winner announced today at SC20 makes significant progress in that direction. Read more…

By John Russell

The Present and Future of AI: A Discussion with HPC Visionary Dr. Eng Lim Goh

November 27, 2020

As HPE’s chief technology officer for artificial intelligence, Dr. Eng Lim Goh devotes much of his time talking and consulting with enterprise customers about Read more…

By Todd R. Weiss

SC20 Panel – OK, You Hate Storage Tiering. What’s Next Then?

November 25, 2020

Tiering in HPC storage has a bad rep. No one likes it. It complicates things and slows I/O. At least one storage technology newcomer – VAST Data – advocates dumping the whole idea. One large-scale user, NERSC storage architect Glenn Lockwood sort of agrees. The challenge, of course, is that tiering... Read more…

By John Russell

Exscalate4CoV Runs 70 Billion-Molecule Coronavirus Simulation

November 25, 2020

The winds of the pandemic are changing – for better and for worse. Three viable vaccines now teeter on the brink of regulatory approval, which will pave the way for broad distribution by April or May. But until then, COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing across the U.S. and Europe... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Azure Scaled to Record 86,400 Cores for Molecular Dynamics

November 20, 2020

A new record for HPC scaling on the public cloud has been achieved on Microsoft Azure. Led by Dr. Jer-Ming Chia, the cloud provider partnered with the Beckman I Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Gordon Bell Special Prize Goes to Massive SARS-CoV-2 Simulations

November 19, 2020

2020 has proven a harrowing year – but it has produced remarkable heroes. To that end, this year, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) introduced the Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Gordon Bell Prize Winner Breaks Ground in AI-Infused Ab Initio Simulation

November 19, 2020

The race to blend deep learning and first-principle simulation to speed up solutions and scale up problems tackled is one of the most exciting research areas in computational science today. This year’s ACM Gordon Bell Prize winner announced today at SC20 makes significant progress in that direction. Read more…

By John Russell

SC20 Keynote: Climate, Exascale & the Ultimate Answer

November 19, 2020

SC20’s keynote was delivered by renowned meteorologist and climatologist Bjorn Stevens, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology since 2008 and a professor at the University of Hamburg. In his keynote, Stevens traced the history of climate science from its earliest days through... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

EuroHPC Exec. Dir. Talks Procurement, EPI, and Europe’s Efforts to Control its HPC Destiny

November 19, 2020

While much of the HPC community’s attention is fixed on SC20’s flood of news and new product announcements, Anders Dam Jensen, the newly-minted executive di Read more…

By Steve Conway

Nvidia Said to Be Close on Arm Deal

August 3, 2020

GPU leader Nvidia Corp. is in talks to buy U.K. chip designer Arm from parent company Softbank, according to several reports over the weekend. If consummated Read more…

By George Leopold

Supercomputer-Powered Research Uncovers Signs of ‘Bradykinin Storm’ That May Explain COVID-19 Symptoms

July 28, 2020

Doctors and medical researchers have struggled to pinpoint – let alone explain – the deluge of symptoms induced by COVID-19 infections in patients, and what Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Azure Scaled to Record 86,400 Cores for Molecular Dynamics

November 20, 2020

A new record for HPC scaling on the public cloud has been achieved on Microsoft Azure. Led by Dr. Jer-Ming Chia, the cloud provider partnered with the Beckman I Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Google Hires Longtime Intel Exec Bill Magro to Lead HPC Strategy

September 18, 2020

In a sign of the times, another prominent HPCer has made a move to a hyperscaler. Longtime Intel executive Bill Magro joined Google as chief technologist for hi Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Keeps Cray Brand Promise, Reveals HPE Cray Supercomputing Line

August 4, 2020

The HPC community, ever-affectionate toward Cray and its eponymous founder, can breathe a (virtual) sigh of relief. The Cray brand will live on, encompassing th Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

By Doug Black

NICS Unleashes ‘Kraken’ Supercomputer

April 4, 2008

A Cray XT4 supercomputer, dubbed Kraken, is scheduled to come online in mid-summer at the National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS). The soon-to-be petascale system, and the resulting NICS organization, are the result of an NSF Track II award of $65 million to the University of Tennessee and its partners to provide next-generation supercomputing for the nation's science community. Read more…

Is the Nvidia A100 GPU Performance Worth a Hardware Upgrade?

October 16, 2020

Over the last decade, accelerators have seen an increasing rate of adoption in high-performance computing (HPC) platforms, and in the June 2020 Top500 list, eig Read more…

By Hartwig Anzt, Ahmad Abdelfattah and Jack Dongarra

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

Aurora’s Troubles Move Frontier into Pole Exascale Position

October 1, 2020

Intel’s 7nm node delay has raised questions about the status of the Aurora supercomputer that was scheduled to be stood up at Argonne National Laboratory next year. Aurora was in the running to be the United States’ first exascale supercomputer although it was on a contemporaneous timeline with... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

European Commission Declares €8 Billion Investment in Supercomputing

September 18, 2020

Just under two years ago, the European Commission formalized the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking (JU): a concerted HPC effort (comprising 32 participating states at c Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

At Oak Ridge, ‘End of Life’ Sometimes Isn’t

October 31, 2020

Sometimes, the old dog actually does go live on a farm. HPC systems are often cursed with short lifespans, as they are continually supplanted by the latest and Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Texas A&M Announces Flagship ‘Grace’ Supercomputer

November 9, 2020

Texas A&M University has announced its next flagship system: Grace. The new supercomputer, named for legendary programming pioneer Grace Hopper, is replacing the Ada system (itself named for mathematician Ada Lovelace) as the primary workhorse for Texas A&M’s High Performance Research Computing (HPRC). Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Top500: Fugaku Keeps Crown, Nvidia’s Selene Climbs to #5

November 16, 2020

With the publication of the 56th Top500 list today from SC20's virtual proceedings, Japan's Fugaku supercomputer – now fully deployed – notches another win, Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia and EuroHPC Team for Four Supercomputers, Including Massive ‘Leonardo’ System

October 15, 2020

The EuroHPC Joint Undertaking (JU) serves as Europe’s concerted supercomputing play, currently comprising 32 member states and billions of euros in funding. I Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Microsoft Azure Adds A100 GPU Instances for ‘Supercomputer-Class AI’ in the Cloud

August 19, 2020

Microsoft Azure continues to infuse its cloud platform with HPC- and AI-directed technologies. Today the cloud services purveyor announced a new virtual machine Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia-Arm Deal a Boon for RISC-V?

October 26, 2020

The $40 billion blockbuster acquisition deal that will bring chipmaker Arm into the Nvidia corporate family could provide a boost for the competing RISC-V architecture. As regulators in the U.S., China and the European Union begin scrutinizing the impact of the blockbuster deal on semiconductor industry competition and innovation, the deal has at the very least... Read more…

By George Leopold

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This