Once confined to research labs and science fiction, quantum computing is finally reaching a point where researchers aren’t simply trying to find out what’s possible, but looking at how they can actually work the technology into commercial hardware.
Rigetti Computing, a member of the current Y Combinator batch, wants to be one of the companies that leads the effort to create an ecosystem around quantum computing. Founded by a former high-ranking researcher at IBM and Yale, the company plans to bring consistent performance improvements to the field through an iterative, simulation-driven prototyping process.
As founder and CEO Chad Rigetti explains it, the company has a list of engineering problems it can work through over the next few years that will bring predictable performance and cost improvements once solved. Many of the issues Rigetti is hoping to deal with don’t even involve the actual quantum aspects of their hardware, which is why the startup is able to use Ansys simulation software to rapidly test changes without having to build new circuitry with each iteration.
Back in April, Rigetti was able to turn early results from its simulation-based testing into $2.5 million in seed funding from AME Cloud Ventures, Morado Ventures, Susa Ventures, and Tim Draper, among others. It’s looking to use that capital to turn its small offices in Berkeley into a nimble quantum computing lab employing some of the top scientists in the field — Rigetti says that the company is “taking great care in building out the team,” hiring from the “top 1 or 2% of Ph.D graduates in fields relevant to our technology.” While Rigetti acknowledges hiring from top research labs and other companies looking into the space, he declined to name specifics because that information could reveal which lines of research are influencing their work.
The next few years of prototyping will determine whether Rigetti Computing can build processors reliable, scalable, and affordable enough (compared to the competition) to make their way into commercial deployments. Theoretically, quantum computers can perform certain kinds of operations immeasurably faster than traditional processors; commonly-cited applications for the technology include simulating chemical reactions at a molecular level in order to create drugs and new materials, more advanced artificial intelligence, and cryptography.
Despite the existence of machines claiming to be powered by quantum processors, there still haven’t been any major breakthroughs in which software built for quantum systems left traditional computing in the dust. According to Rigetti, there are two reasons why that might change soon: “The first is the rapid pace in development of new applications for small- to medium-sized quantum computers; the second is the exponential manner in which compute power grows with system size for quantum machines.”
Rigetti Computing’s fate depends on taking advantage of those two trends. Building software for a quantum computer is a lot more complicated than simply changing APIs to port an app from the PC to a smartphone, so the sooner the startup can get hardware into potential customers’ hands so that they can become comfortable working with it, the more likely it is that someone will build software that shows quantifiable results. If they can get to that point, the sky is basically the limit: scaling a quantum computer up theoretically brings exponential improvements to performance, which only makes more applications possible.