Honeywell International, perhaps best known as a manufacturer of thermostats, plans to offer cloud-based access to what it claims is the world’s most powerful quantum computer, according to a benchmarking measure known as quantum volume. In early March, the company announced that access would be offered sometime within Q2 2020.
As stated in a research paper published March 3, 2020 in the journal Nature, Honeywell has developed a quantum computer that uses quantum charge coupled device (QCCD) architecture. This architecture uses electromagnetic fields to trap ions so they can be manipulated with laser pulses. The company says that this approach to quantum computing results in more predictable errors than other qubit technologies that don’t use atoms directly.
Opportunities for Quantum Computing
The announcement is striking in several ways. First, Honeywell is far from a household name when it comes to quantum computing. But in an interview with Omdia | Tractica, Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions group, explained that Honeywell sees opportunities for quantum computing to affect the industries in which the company operates. It wanted to directly participate in the technology development so it can leverage the knowledge and experience and apply it to Honeywell’s own businesses.
“People who [only] dream about quantum computers probably won’t be able to even use them,” Uttley said. He also noted that enterprises that aren’t actively working with quantum computing now won’t have the ability, infrastructure, business processes, or business models to take advantage of quantum computing once it reaches commercial viability.
A Different Approach: Quantum Volume
Second, quantum computing manufacturers have traditionally measured the power of their machines by noting the number of qubits used to carry out calculations. Honeywell has taken a different approach, compared with most quantum computing hardware developers, and has adopted IBM’s quantum volume benchmarking method.
Quantum volume assesses a quantum computer’s overall performance by taking into account multiple factors, including coherence, calibration errors, crosstalk, spectator errors, gate fidelity, measurement fidelity, and initialization fidelity. It then distills a single number, which makes it easier to compare the performance and capability of disparate quantum systems.
According to Uttley, quantum volume addresses the capability of quantum computers, rather than simply counting qubits, which can be highly misleading. He used an example of auto enthusiasts talking about engine displacement size to discuss performance, rather than citing actual performance statistics, such as 0–60 mph times.
“For a long time, people would say, well, what is your engine displacement size,” Uttley explained. “And that became something that people would look at it and go, Oh, I have a bigger engine. But the next questions were, ‘does the car perform any better; does it go any faster?’”
“The things that people actually cared about would get lost in some metric that didn’t necessarily make sense,” Uttley said. “And that was starting to play out in quantum computing, by people reporting on the number of physical qubits. The problem with that [is] it gets really tough in a place like trapped ion where I can stick hundreds of qubits in there. It doesn’t add any value unless you can put the rest of the infrastructure around it to do these dynamic computations.”
Honeywell says that its forthcoming quantum computer (which is yet unnamed) will post a quantum volume figure of 64, which is significantly higher than the quantum volume figure of 32 that IBM has achieved with its own 53-qubit computer. And Uttley believes that the quantum volume metric better captures and represents the overall capability of a quantum computer.
“What quantum volume is intending to do, and what I believe we as Honeywell believe it is showing, is how much you can then go ‘drive’ with a quantum system that has that level of quantum volume,” Uttley said. It takes into account and measures critical features and benchmarks, including the level of connectivity between circuits, error rates, coherence times, and the ability to do mid-circuit measurements that will allow a quantum machine to interrogate specific qubits, assess their outcome, and then modify the rest of the computation based on those outputs.
Innovation and Commercialization Efforts
The third interesting aspect of the announcement provides the clearest example of how quantum advantage, quantum supremacy, and the eventual commercial use of quantum computing to solve real-world problems will be achieved. Honeywell, like many other companies, is investing in and working with a number of partners to help drive innovation and commercialization efforts.
Honeywell publicly began quantum computing activities in 2018 and partnered with Microsoft in 2019 as part of its Azure Quantum stack. Its venture capital arm, Honeywell Ventures, has invested in software vendors Cambridge Quantum Computing and Zapata Computing. These companies provide a quantum development platform, as well as enterprise quantum applications that focus on chemistry, machine learning, cybersecurity, and optimization problems. Honeywell also says it will be working with JPMorgan Chase to develop quantum algorithms that can be useful in the financial services sector.
Interested parties that want to access Honeywell’s quantum computer will be able to do so through Microsoft Azure Quantum as a service. Like most other companies in the space, it does not plan on selling hardware.
“We believe that the way to make progress in this near-term era is to be able to make the capabilities available to those people who can actually do algorithm development,” Uttley explained. “That is a small set of resources around the world. One of the scarcest resources that exists are people who know how to program quantum algorithms in a way that they can be run.”