ProBeat: AWS and Azure are generating uneasy excitement in quantum computing

Quantum is having a moment. In October, Google claimed to have achieved a quantum supremacy milestone. In November, Microsoft announced Azure Quantum, a cloud service that lets you tap into quantum hardware providers Honeywell, IonQ, or QCI. Last week, AWS announced Amazon Braket, a cloud service that lets you tap into quantum hardware providers D-Wave, IonQ, and Rigetti. At the Q2B 2019 quantum computing conference this week, I got a pulse for how the nascent industry is feeling.

Binary digits (bits) are the basic units of information in classical computing, while quantum bits (qubits) make up quantum computing. Bits are always in a state of 0 or 1, while qubits can be in a state of 0, 1, or a superposition of the two. Quantum computing leverages qubits to perform computations that would be much more difficult for a classical computer. Potential applications are so vast and wide (from basic optimization problems to machine learning to all sorts of modeling) that interested industries span finance, chemistry, aerospace, cryptography, and so on. But it’s still so early that the industry is nowhere close to reaching consensus on what the transistor for qubits should look like.

Excitement and unease

Currently, your cloud quantum computing options are limited to single hardware providers, such as those from D-Wave and IBM. Amazon and Microsoft want to change that.

Enterprises and researchers interested in testing and experimenting with quantum are excited because they will be able to use different quantum processors via the same service, at least in theory. They’re uneasy, however, because the quantum processors are so fundamentally different that it’s not clear how easy it will be to switch between them. D-Wave uses quantum annealing, Honeywell and IonQ use ion trap devices, and Rigetti and QCI use superconducting chips. Even the technologies that are “the same” have completely different architectures.

Entrepreneurs and enthusiasts are hopeful that Amazon and Microsoft will make it easier to interface with the various quantum hardware technologies. They’re uneasy, however, because Amazon and Microsoft have not shared pricing and technical details. Plus, some of the quantum providers offer their own cloud services, so it will be difficult to suss out when it makes more sense to work with them directly.

The hardware providers themselves are excited because they get exposure to massive customer bases. Amazon and Microsoft are the world’s biggest and second biggest cloud providers, respectively. They’re uneasy, however, because the tech giants are really just middlemen, which of course poses its own problems of costs and reliance.

The clear winners

At least right now, it looks like this will be the new normal. Even hardware providers that haven’t announced they are partnering with Amazon and/or Microsoft, like Xanadu, are in talks to do just that.

Overall at the event, excitement trumped uneasiness. If you’re participating in a domain as nascent as quantum, you must be optimistic. The news this quarter all happened very quickly, but there is still a long road ahead. After all, these cloud services have only been announced. They still have to become available, gain exposure, pick up traction, become practical, prove useful, and so on.

The devil is in the details. How much are these cloud services for quantum going to cost? Amazon and Microsoft haven’t said. When exactly will they be available in preview or in beta? Amazon and Microsoft haven’t said. How will switching between different quantum processors work in practice? Amazon and Microsoft haven’t said.

One thing is clear. Everyone at the event was talking about the impact of the two biggest cloud providers offering quantum hardware from different companies. The clear winners? Amazon and Microsoft.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.


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