In January 2022, Atom Computing received $60 million in Series B funding. The company’s stated goal for the funding was to build a larger second-generation optically trapped neutral atom quantum computer. Today, Atom Computing met that goal with the announcement of the 2024 launch of a second-generation neutral atom quantum computer equipped with 1,225 qubits.
I had the opportunity to speak with Rob Hays, president and CEO of Atom Computing, about the new machine and the efforts that went into its development. The announcement is important for the entire quantum industry because Atom Computing will be the first company to launch a gate-based universal quantum computer with more than a thousand qubits. It becomes even more significant considering that the company is a relatively new startup.
Beginnings of atomic computing
Atom Computing was founded five years ago by Benjamin Bloom, who has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Colorado, and Jonathan King, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. After securing $5 million in seed funding, Bloom and King built the world’s first nuclear spin qubit quantum computer created from optically trapped neutral atoms. The first Atom Computer prototype, called Phoenix, used an array of 10×10 strontium-87 atoms to create 100 qubits.
The Phoenix machine was developed at Atom Computing’s Berkeley headquarters. Since its inception, Atom Computing scientists have used Phoenix to improve the capabilities of neutral atom hardware and software, much of which is used in the company’s next-generation computer.
Atom Computing’s next-generation 1,225-qubit machine was developed at its newest commercial operations facility in Boulder, Colorado. Patrick Moorhead, Founder and Chief Analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, and I had the opportunity to visit and tour the facility late last year during its grand opening.
Earlier this year, Atom Computing was chosen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to participate in a special program designed to find new methods for scaling qubits and developing a broader set of error correction algorithms. quantum necessary for fault tolerance. In addition to funding, the DARPA partnership provided Atom Computing access to experts from the Department of Defense, academia, and national laboratories.
I asked Rob Hays about the main challenges Atom Computing scientists faced while building the new machine. He didn’t surprise me when he said that increasing the number of atoms and creating 1,225 individual traps was a challenge.
“You need just the right amount of laser power to hold the atoms in place and still be able to manipulate their states while maintaining good fidelity,” he said. “The combination of doing all three things at the same time and doing them well is the real challenge.”
The number of qubits determines the power of the computer and the complexity of the algorithm it can handle. However, scaling is difficult because qubits from neutral atoms, like all qubits, can lose their quantum state due to various factors, such as unwanted laser light or magnetic fields. Even increasing the number of qubits can exacerbate these problems.
Hays added that the development team also solved a future energy problem while working on the current machine. He said the scientists achieved enough energy efficiency to provide enough power and precision control to scale the system beyond what was needed for the new machine.
The long-term goal of quantum computing is to build a fault-tolerant quantum computer. Atom Computing’s initial 100-qubit Phoenix machine and its next-generation 1,225-qubit platform are important milestones on its roadmap to building a fault-tolerant gate-based machine. So far, the company continues to achieve its goal of scaling qubits by an order of magnitude in each generation.
The quantum science community has already made great technical advances. However, there are still many known and unknown engineering and physics problems to be solved before the community can build a fault-tolerant quantum computer capable of executing quintillions of circuit operations per second.
Atom Computing has already solved many difficult technical problems necessary for fault tolerance. It holds the record for a coherence time of 40 seconds allowing longer and more complex algorithms to be run. It was also the first neutral-atom quantum company to develop half-loop measurement, an important feature necessary for many quantum operations, such as error correction and conditional logic operations. Atom Computing previously demonstrated the ability to measure the quantum state of specific qubits during computation and detect certain types of errors without disturbing other qubits.
Atom Computing is expected to release specific technical details about the new machine closer to the launch date. It will be a new and interesting experience to see benchmark data for a 1225-qubit quantum computer.
Swap atom types
Obviously, Atom Computing had to make many adjustments and improvements to existing features, as well as introducing technical innovations, to go from a hundred-qubit machine to one with over 1,200 qubits. I will cover these technical changes once the data is available and I can do a more complete review of what was done and the subsequent benchmarking results.
However, there is one important change that I want to discuss here. The initial 100-qubit Phoenix machine was built on a platform of strontium-87 atoms for its qubits. The new 1,225-qubit quantum computer uses ytterbium-171 atoms to create its qubits. I’m glad to see the change because there are several very sound technical reasons why Atom Computing switched to ytterbium-171. In fact, a recent study concluded that ytterbium-171 may be the best material of all for qubits.
The main reason for the change is that ytterbium-171 has a nuclear spin of 1/2 compared to the isotope strontium-87, which has a more complicated spin of 9/2. In simple terms, that means that ytterbium has only two quantum levels that can be accessed in its lowest state. Having only two levels makes the states of ytterbium easier to manipulate and measure than the complicated structure of strontium. Having more levels available on a 9/2 spin requires more control fields, which can also create complications that make a strontium-based system more error-prone.
Atom Computing’s 100-qubit Phoenix prototype and its next-generation 1,225-qubit platform are important steps on the roadmap leading to a million-qubit fault-tolerant gate-based machine.
While fault tolerance remains a distant goal, there are research signals and business results that show quantum technology is on the verge of becoming practical for real-world computing tasks. Depending on how good Atom Computing’s next-generation processor performs, 1,225 qubits should produce some very useful and interesting research on the way to that goal.
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