IBM Adds Support for Ion Trap Quantum Technology to Qiskit

By John Russell

November 11, 2019

After years of percolating in the shadow of quantum computing research based on superconducting semiconductors – think IBM, Rigetti, Google, and D-Wave (quantum annealing) – ion trap technology is edging into the QC mainstream. Last week, IBM announced its Qiskit QC development framework now supports ion trap technology from Austria-based start-up Alpine Quantum Technologies (AQT). A week earlier US-based ion trap start-up IonQ launched its nascent cloud platform, Azure Quantum, with Microsoft. Of course Microsoft is pursuing yet a different approach in QC.

Whether ion trap technology will win a significant place among technologies vying for sway in QC is uncertain. It has some inherent advantages such as not requiring the extremely low temperature operating environment of superconducting semiconductor-based systems. Also, ion trap qubits have longer coherence times although gate switching is slower.

NSF has funded at least one effort (STAQ) to explore ion trap technology and IonQ has been fairly voluble about its aspirations (See HPCwire article, Quantum Upstart: IonQ Sets Sights on Challenging IBM, Rigetti, Others). It will be interesting to watch as different technologies are explored for quantum computing.

IBM announced the expanded Qiskit capability in a blog by Ali Javadi-Abhari, Paul Nation, and Jay Gambetta last week (Qiskit – Write once, target multiple architectures.) They wrote today’s QC ecosystem includes “a diverse set of experimental platforms and system builds quite different in various aspects to our own superconducting qubit devices. Hence, to truly accelerate research and development, we need a software framework that can be universally applied across the available qubit technologies.”

In this instance, Qiskit could be use researchers experimenting with a five-qubit trapped ion device located at the University of Innsbruck (UIBK) hosted by AQT. The added support for another QC technology is significant. It does seem likely that an increased sprouting (if not proliferation) of new tools for quantum computing is underway. Moreover, given the uncertainty regarding which quantum computing technologies  (perhaps several) will prevail, it seems likely tool developers will explore way to make their offerings cross-platform ‘compatible’.

As for what IBM has done, here’s an excerpt from the blog and accompanying figure:

“The latest Qiskit 0.13 release features support for trapped ion devices via the introduction of XX – or Mølmer-Sørenson (MS) gates – transpilation between superconducting and trapped ion gate sets, and the qiskit-aqt-provider for communicating with the Innsbruck device. Enabling this support took a grand total of three days from concept to data, and highlights the ease at which differing qubit platforms can be incorporated into the Qiskit framework. Here we showcase these new features and demonstrate how a Qiskit user can write a circuit once, and seamlessly execute it on IBM quantum and AQT backends.

“Second, in order to execute the circuits, the new quantum computing device must be reachable. In Qiskit, this entails writing a ‘provider’ that handles the API connections, authentication, as well as job submission and retrieval between Qiskit and the host backend. The format for this is spelled out in the Qiskit Specification. Once written, a user can write a quantum circuit in Qiskit, and by simply importing the provider, compile it for the devices accessible via that provider. This means that any of the libraries built into Qiskit, be it for quantum applications and algorithms (Aqua), or benchmarking and noise estimation tools (Ignis), can all be developed and applied to multiple quantum computing technologies effortlessly.”

The blog does a good job of walking through a couple of examples of how Qiskit can be used with ion trap technology.

At this time Qiskit does not support IonQ. Of the recent Azure Quantum deal, Microsoft says, “This partnership will enable Microsoft Azure Quantum customers to run their own calculations on the world’s most accurate quantum computer, using existing Microsoft tools such as Q#, QDK and Visual Studio. This partnership allows IonQ to focus on quantum hardware and to take advantage of Microsoft’s continued innovation in quantum software tools.

“We’re excited to see Azure Quantum customers run their programs on IonQ quantum computers for the first time,” said Peter Chapman, CEO of IonQ. “We’ve seen a ton of excitement from all corners about our ion-based approach, and are thrilled to expand access to our quantum capabilities through Microsoft’s network.”

Link to IBM Blog: https://www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2019/11/qiskit-for-multiple-architectures/

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