A company that used to make home thermostats is now building a quantum computer. Honeywell, which is known for making control systems for homes, businesses and planes, says it has big plans for the quantum future.
“You would have never suspected Honeywell was doing this,” says Tony Uttley, the president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions. The company has been working on its plans for a decade, he says. “We wanted to wait until we could just show people how good we are at this instead of telling them about it.”
Now the wait is over: on 3 March, the company announced that its computer will be open for business within the next three months, with customers able to access it over the internet.
Like all the quantum computers currently available, it will probably be used to more easily solve problems that involve huge amounts of data, like optimising aeroplane routes or simulating molecules. It isn’t expected to outperform ordinary computers at this point.
Honeywell measures its computer’s efficacy using a metric coined by IBM called quantum volume. It takes into account the number of quantum bits – or qubits – the computer has, their error rate, how long the system can spend calculating before the qubits stop working and a few other key properties.
IBM’s System Q One, its first commercial device, has a quantum volume of 16, which the company claims makes it the most powerful quantum computer in existence. Honeywell’s new computer had a quantum volume of 16 when the firm began testing it in January, but Uttley says the company expects to reach a quantum volume of up to 64 when the computer becomes available for commercial use.
While IBM’s computer used 20 qubits to reach a quantum volume of 16, Honeywell’s only used four. That is an indication that Honeywell’s qubits are longer-lasting with fewer errors than IBM’s, but this kind of system can also be difficult to scale up.
Honeywell’s quantum computer uses trapped ions – charged particles held in place by precise electromagnetic fields – as its qubits. Many of the other big players in quantum computing, such as Google and IBM, use superconducting qubits instead, which are based on supercooled electrical circuits. Superconducting qubits are easier to mass-produce and can run calculations faster, but trapped ions tend to be more accurate and they have longer-lasting quantum states.
The firm also announced an ambitious promise: Honeywell plans to add additional qubits to their computer each year for the next five years, increasing its quantum volume by a factor of 10 each time. “This is not a science project for us,” says Uttley. “We’re doing this because we believe we can make that step to value creation with a useful quantum computer.”
It isn’t clear yet how Honeywell’s computer will compare with those that are already available, says Scott Aaronson at the University of Texas at Austin. Several other major companies already have quantum computers, and some of these have had a years-long head start, he says.
Thanks to its longer-lasting trapped-ion qubits, Honeywell does have one thing that the other firms don’t, says Uttley – something known as mid-circuit measurement. This essentially lets you redirect a quantum calculation as it is being executed.
“We can stop the calculation, take one qubit, ask ‘what are you right now, are you a 1 or a 0?’ and change the rest of the calculation based on that answer,” says Uttley. “It’s like putting an ‘if’ statement in an algorithm, and it’s something that’s unique to us.”
“One can easily imagine situations where mid-circuit measurements would extend what one is able to do,” says Aaronson, at least in the near-term. “Mid-circuit measurements also play a central role in the proposals for how to someday achieve quantum error-correction,” he says, which is the next major milestone in the growing field of quantum computing.
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Article amended on
3 March 2020
Honeywell no longer makes home thermostats
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