In January 2022, Atom Computing received $60 million in Series B funding. The company’s stated goal for the funds was to build a larger, second-generation optically trapped neutral atom quantum computer. Today, Atom Computing met that goal with the announcement of the 2024 release of a second-generation neutral atomic quantum computer equipped with 1,225 qubits.
I had the opportunity to speak with Rob Hays, President and CEO of Atom Computing, about the new machine and the efforts that went into its development. The announcement is significant for the entire quantum industry as Atom Computing becomes the first company to release a universal, gate-based quantum computer with over a thousand qubits. It becomes even more significant considering that the company is a relatively new start-up.
The Beginning of Atom Computing
Atom Computing was founded five years ago by Benjamin Bloom, who has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Colorado, and Jonathan King, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. After receiving seed funding of $5 million, Bloom and King built the world’s first quantum computer with nuclear spin, created from optically trapped neutral atoms. Atom Computer’s first prototype, called Phoenix, used a 10×10 array of strontium-87 atoms to create 100 qubits.
The Phoenix machine was developed at Atom Computing’s headquarters in Berkeley. Since its inception, Atom Computing researchers have used Phoenix to improve the capabilities of atom-neutral hardware and software, much of which is used in the company’s latest generation of computing.
Atom Computing’s next-generation 1,225-qubit machine was developed at its newest commercial facility in Boulder, Colorado. Patrick Moorhead, Founder and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, and I had a chance to visit and tour the facility late last year during the grand opening.
Earlier this year, Atom Computing was selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to participate in a special program designed to find new methods to scale up qubits and develop a broader set of quantum error correction algorithms needed for fault tolerance. In addition to funding, the DARPA partnership gave Atom Computing access to experts from the Department of Defense, academia, and national labs.
I asked Rob Hays about major challenges for Atom Computing researchers in building the new machine. I wasn’t surprised when he said it was challenging to scale up the number of atoms and create 1,225 individual traps.
“You need just the right amount of laser power to hold atoms in place and still be able to manipulate their state while maintaining good fidelity,” he said. “The combination of doing all three things at the same time and doing them right is the real challenge.”
The number of qubits determines the power of the computer and the algorithmic complexity it can handle. However, scaling is difficult because neutral atom qubits, like all qubits, can lose their quantum state due to various factors such as unwanted laser light or magnetic fields. Even an increase in the number of qubits can add to these problems.
Hays added that the development team also solved a future energy problem while working on the current machine. He said the researchers achieved enough energy efficiency to provide enough power and precision control to scale up the system beyond what was necessary for the new machine.
The long-term goal of quantum computing is to build a fault-tolerant quantum computer. Atom Computing’s first 100-qubit Phoenix machine and next-generation 1,225-qubit platform are important milestones in its roadmap to build a fault-tolerant gate-based machine. So far, the company continues to achieve its goal of scaling qubits by an order of magnitude in each generation.
A lot of technological progress has already been made by quantum science. But there are still many known and unknown engineering and physics problems yet to be solved before society can build a fault-tolerant quantum computer that can execute millions of circuit operations per second.
Atom Computing has already solved many difficult technical problems needed for fault tolerance. It holds the record for a 40-second coherence time that allows longer and more complex algorithms to run. It was also the first neutral quantum company to develop mid-circuit measurement, an important feature needed for many quantum operations such as error correction and conditional logic operations. Atom Computing has previously demonstrated the ability to measure the quantum state of specific qubits during computation and detect certain types of errors without disturbing other qubits.
Atom Computing is expected to release specific technical details about the new machine as the release date nears. It will be a new and interesting experience to see benchmark data for a 1,225-qubit quantum computer.
Change types of atoms
Obviously, Atom Computing had to make many adjustments and improvements to existing features, along with introducing technological innovations, to scale up from a hundred qubit machine to one with more than 1,200 qubits. I will cover these technical changes when the data becomes available and I can do a more extensive review of what was done and the subsequent benchmarking results.
However, there is one important change that I want to discuss here. The first 100-qubit Phoenix machine was built on a platform of strontium-87 atoms for its qubits. The new 1,225-qubit quantum computer uses ytterbium-171 atoms to create its qubits. I’m glad to see the change because there are a number of very good technical reasons why Atom Computing switched to ytterbium-171. In fact, a recent study concluded that ytterbium-171 may be the best material of all for qubits.
The main reason for the change is that ytterbium-171 has a nuclear spin of 1/2 compared to the strontium-87 isotope, which has a more complicated spin of 9/2. In plain English, this means that ytterbium has only two quantum levels that can be reached in its lowest state. Having only two levels makes ytterbium’s state easier to manipulate and easier to measure than strontium’s complicated structure. Having more available levels in a 9/2 spin requires more control fields, which can also create complications that make a strontium-based system more prone to error.
Atom Computing’s 100-qubit Phoenix prototype and its next-generation 1,225-qubit platform are important stepping stones in the roadmap leading to a million-qubit fault-tolerant gate-based machine.
Fault tolerance is still a distant goal, but there are research signals and commercial results that show quantum is getting closer to becoming practical for real-world computing tasks. Depending on the performance of Atom Computing’s next-generation processor, 1,225 qubits should produce a lot of useful and very interesting research toward that goal.
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