Google's quantum computing push opens new front in cloud battle
For years, Google has poured time and money into one of the most ambitious dreams of modern technology: building a working quantum computer. Now the company is thinking of ways to turn the project into a business.
Source: Mark Bergen
Alphabet Inc.’s Google has offered science labs and artificial intelligence researchers early access to its quantum machines over the internet in recent months. The goal is to spur development of tools and applications for the technology, and ultimately turn it into a faster, more powerful cloud-computing service, according to people pitched on the plan.
A Google presentation slide, obtained by Bloomberg News, details the company’s quantum hardware, including a new lab it calls an "Embryonic quantum data center." Another slide on the software displays information about ProjectQ, an open-source effort to get developers to write code for quantum computers.
"They’re pretty open that they’re building quantum hardware and they would, at some point in the future, make it a cloud service," said Peter McMahon, a quantum computing researcher at Stanford University.
These systems push the boundaries of how atoms and other tiny particles work to solve problems that traditional computers can’t handle. The technology is still emerging from a long research phase, and its capabilities are hotly debated. Still, Google’s nascent efforts to commercialize it, and similar steps by International Business Machines Corp., are opening a new phase of competition in the fast-growing cloud market.
Jonathan DuBois, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said Google staff have been clear about plans to open up the quantum machinery through its cloud service and have pledged that government and academic researchers would get free access. A Google spokesman declined to comment.
Providing early and free access to specialized hardware to ignite interest fits with Google’s long-term strategy to expand its cloud business. In May, the company introduced a chip, called Cloud TPU, that it will rent out to cloud customers as a paid service. In addition, a select number of academic researchers are getting access to the chips at no cost.
While traditional computers process bits of information as 1s or zeros, quantum machines rely on "qubits" that can be a 1, a zero, or a state somewhere in between at any moment. It’s still unclear whether this works better than existing supercomputers. And the technology doesn’t support commercial activity yet.
Still, Google and a growing number of other companies think it will transform computing by processing some important tasks millions of times faster. SoftBank Group Corp.’s giant new Vision fund is scouting for investments in this area, and IBM and Microsoft Corp. have been working on it for years, along with startup D-Wave Systems Inc.
In 2014, Google unveiled an effort to develop its own quantum computers. Earlier this year, it said the system would prove its "supremacy" -- a theoretical test to perform on par, or better than, existing supercomputers -- by the end of 2017. One of the presentation slides viewed by Bloomberg repeated this prediction.
Quantum computers are bulky beasts that require special care, such as deep refrigeration, so they’re more likely to be rented over the internet than bought and put in companies’ own data centers. If the machines end up being considerably faster, that would be a major competitive advantage for a cloud service. Google rents storage by the minute. In theory, quantum machines would trim computing times drastically, giving a cloud service a huge effective price cut. Google’s cloud offerings currently trail those of Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft.
Earlier this year, IBM’s cloud business began offering access to quantum computers. In May, it added a 17 qubit prototype quantum processor to the still-experimental service. Google has said it is producing a machine with 49 qubits, although it’s unclear whether this is the computer being offered over the internet to outside users.
Experts see that benchmark as more theoretical than practical. "You could do some reasonably-sized damage with that -- if it fell over and landed on your foot," said Seth Lloyd, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Useful applications, he argued, will arrive when a system has more than 100 qubits.
Yet Lloyd credits Google for stirring broader interest. Now, there are quantum startups "popping up like mushrooms," he said.
One is Rigetti Computing, which has netted more than $69 million from investors to create the equipment and software for a quantum computer. That includes a "Forest" cloud service, released in June, that lets companies experiment with its nascent machinery.
Founder Chad Rigetti sees the technology becoming as hot as AI is now, but he won’t put a timeline on that. "This industry is very much in its infancy," he said. "No one has built a quantum computer that works."
The hope in the field is that functioning quantum computers, if they arrive, will have a variety of uses such as improving solar panels, drug discovery or even fertilizer development. Right now, the only algorithms that run on them are good for chemistry simulations, according to Robin Blume-Kohout, a technical staffer at Sandia National Laboratories, which evaluates quantum hardware.
A separate branch of theoretical quantum computing involves cryptography -- ways of transferring data with much better security than current machines. MIT’s Lloyd discussed these theories with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin more than a decade ago at a conference. The pair were fascinated and the professor recalls detailing a way to apply quantum cryptography so people could do a Google search without revealing the query to the company.
A few years later, when Lloyd ran into Page and Brin again, he said he pitched them on the idea. After checking with the business side of Google, the founders said they weren’t interested because the company’s ad-serving systems relied on knowing what searches people do, Lloyd said. "Now, seven or eight years down the line, maybe they’d be a bit more receptive," he added.