re:Invent 2023: AWS Talks a Little Quantum, Showcases Error Correction Progress

By John Russell

November 28, 2023

Quantum computing held sway in the last few minutes of AWS senior vice president Peter DeSantis’ keynote yesterday at the AWS re:Invent 2023 conference, being held in Las Vegas this week. While scarce on details, DeSantis shared internal QPU development work that has made progress in error correction, and perhaps as importantly, he suggested the depth of AWS’s plunge into quantum device development and quantum writ large.

Like many of the big cloud providers, AWS is betting big that quantum computing and quantum networking will become significant players on the advanced computational landscape, although just how soon remains unclear. In 2019, AWS opened the AWS Center for Quantum Computing in partnership with Caltech; this center is focused on QPU hardware development and, among other things, progressing error correction techniques. (AWS has other quantum-related development centers in addition to its AWS Braket portal providing tools and access to third-party quantum devices.)

Given the enthusiasm around quantum computing, it’s worth noting that  China’s Alibaba is reported to be shutting down its quantum computing effort (Reuters report), but for the most part the very large cloud providers – AWS, Google, Microsoft – continue forging ahead. It’s expected that in these early days, cloud providers will be the primary route for users to actually access third-party quantum devices. (See HPCwire article, Analyst Panel Says Take the Quantum Computing Plunge Now…)

Neither AWS or Microsoft have said very much about their internal QPU development, while Google has provided select access to its devices for some time.

In touting the AWS work, DeSantis said, “To give you a sneak peak, this is a quantum device. It’s a custom designed chip that’s totally fabricated in-house by our AWS quantum team. And the unique thing about this chip is how it approaches error correction by separating the bit flips from the phase flips. With this prototype device, we’ve been able to suppress bit flips errors by 100x by using a passive error correction approach. And this allows us to focus our active error correction on just those phase flips…[By] combining both of these approaches, we’ve shown that we can theoretically achieve quantum error correction six times more efficiently than with standard error correction approaches.”

A superconducting-qubit quantum chip in package assembly developed and manufactured at the AWS Center for Quantum Computing in Pasadena, Calif. Credit: AWS

To be sure, the AWS device isn’t something you can readily get access to now. DeSantis noted, “We should be mindful that we’re still early in the days of this journey to the error-corrected quantum computer. This step taken is an important part of developing the hardware-efficient and scalable-quantum error correction that we need to solve interesting problems on a quantum computer. We’re going to be sharing more details about these experimental results soon.” Current error rates vary widely among competing qubit modalities. DeSantis cited “about one error per 1000 quantum operations” as the current state of the art.

AWS uses a superconducting qubit approach and, broadly, its error-reduction advance is based on implementing what’s called “cat cubit” technology, which others such as start-up Alice & Bob are also exploring. Here’s a slightly deeper layer of detail provided by AWS:

  • “It uses a special oscillator-based qubit that strongly suppresses bit flip errors, and requires a much simpler outer error-correcting code to protect the remaining phase flip errors. The estimated savings in overhead associated with quantum error correction is up to 6x for practical systems.
  • “It is based on a superconducting quantum circuit technology that “prints” qubits on the surface of a silicon microchip, making it highly scalable in the number of physical qubits. This scalability allows one to exponentially suppress the total logical error rate by adding more physical qubits to the chip. Other approaches based on similar oscillator-based qubits rely on large 3D resonant cavities, that need to be manually pieced together.”

AWS also announced a new offering to its Braket portal – Braket Direct – a program that expands the ways customers can access quantum hardware. Here’s a description excerpted from an AWS blog posted yesterday:

“You can use Braket Direct to reserve the entire dedicated machine for a period of time on IonQ Aria, QuEra Aquila, and Rigetti Aspen-M-3 devices for running your most complex, long-running, time-sensitive workloads, or conducting live events such as training workshops and hackathons, where you pay only for what you reserve.

“To further your research, you can now engage directly with Braket’s experts through free office hours or one-on-one, hands-on reservation prep sessions. For deeper research collaborations, you can connect with specialists from quantum hardware providers such as IonQOxford Quantum CircuitsQuEraRigetti, or Amazon Quantum Solutions Lab, our dedicated professional services team.

“Finally, to truly push the boundaries, you can gain access to experimental capabilities that have limited or reduced availability starting with IonQ’s highest fidelity, 30-qubit Forte device.”

For the most part, the quantum portion of DeSantis’s key was good primer on quantum computing (begins at roughly 58 min into his talk). It was also the tail end of a long talk.

He noted, “You may have seen the quantum computers with hundreds or even 1000s of qubits are being produced today. So it’s a reasonable question to ask why haven’t quantum computers started to change the world. And like many things, you have to read the fine print. And the fine print with quantum computers says they’re noisy, and prone to error.” Regular use of quantum devices in production environments, he suggested, is still years away, but perhaps closer than thought earlier.

It will be interesting to see whether AWS QPU development actualizes into devices that users can start to experiment with.

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